The term "cowardice" has two connotations: fear and dishonor. In
Western literature, it has usually been associated with deserters:
those who turn away from battle out of fear, thereby violating codes
of honor and bravery that call for soldiers to face their enemy
directly, even if it means certain death. This is also the dominant
sense of the word in Islamic literature, e.g. "[A]nyone who gives
them (i.e. the enemy in war) his back has come back with a great
anger from Allah" [Qur'an 8/16]. However, the current notion that
terrorists are cowards seems to rely more on their supposed violation
of honor rather than their lack of bravery. For instance, one often
finds the phrase "faceless cowards" (as in George W. Bush's proclamation
honoring the victims of 9/11), suggesting that terrorism is considered
a cowardly act because those who commit it refuse to be known or
to face down their opponents directly.
This shift toward cowardice as dishonor (rather than lack of bravery
in the face of death) is even more pronounced in discussions of
suicide missions in which the attacker's death is a certainty. In
such cases, cowardice becomes effectively a synonym for treachery.
While this use of the term is not necessarily racialized in American
usage (Timothy McVeigh and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are
also widely deplored as cowards), it does fit all too easily with
centuries-old stereotypes of Arabs and Asians as treacherous and
deceitful: consider the condemnation of Japanese as "sneaky" following
Pearl Harbor, or the flare-up over lyrics characterizing Arabs as
treacherous in Disney's Aladdin.
Bill Kirkpatrick is a Ph.D. candidate in Media and Cultural
Studies at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Questions to Consider
- As the nature of warfare changes, with civilians as increasingly
"legitimate" targets, and with armies developing the ability to
bomb thousands without ever facing their opponents or putting
themselves at risk, what codes of honor and bravery still apply?
- What separates the coward from the smart tactician, the pacifist,
the bully, or the technologically underprivileged?
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