“A heinous and cowardly act,” President Obama called the Boston Marathon bombing soon after its occurrence. Heinous, it certainly was. But why cowardly? To do what the two Tsarnaev brothers did —construct and transport homemade bombs that could have gone off in their hands at any moment, fling them out the windows of a speeding vehicle in a Hollywood-style car chase, engage in a furious shootout with police by whom they were outgunned and outnumbered —one would have to be, it seems to me, quite brave. Heinously brave.
We are by now so used to calling terrorist acts “cowardly” that we never stop to think what an absurd adjective this generally is for them.
“The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts,” President George W. Bush declared immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
No one I know of bothered to comment that no coward could possibly have hijacked an airplane, flown it cross-country and unerringly crashed it into one of the Twin Towers knowing he was about to die. Whatever else that takes, it takes courage.
The automatic association of terror with cowardice has been around for a while. When Hezbollah suicide bombers killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 by smashing through a roadblock and the door of a building in a van loaded with explosives, President Reagan labeled the deed “a cowardly act.” When Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Senator Edward Kennedy proclaimed that “this cowardly violence will not deter the peace process.” Deter the peace process it did, but the senator might have tried putting himself in Amir’s place. How much of a coward can you be to stalk your country’s best-protected individual, whip out a pistol in the presence of his armed bodyguard, calmly aim it with a steady hand and pull the trigger?
And so it goes. When Hamas fired rockets from Gaza at Israel last November, White House press secretary Jay Carney called on it to “stop these cowardly acts,” even though the “cowards” in question could at any second have been blown up by an Israeli drone monitoring them from above.
A “criminal and cowardly act,” Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif labeled last September’s daring jihadist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.
And just two days before the bombing in Boston, Al Qaeda gunmen stormed the Supreme Court building in Mogadishu and engaged in a prolonged firefight with government forces, three of them blowing themselves up with explosives strapped to their bodies. How describe them? They were, according to the United Nations envoy in Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, “cowardly terrorists.”
“Evil terrorists” would have been more like it — but we seem to have great psychological difficulty in ascribing courage to evil. It’s so much more comforting to think of evil as cowardly, which also makes it seem much easier to defeat.