The Rhetoric of Cowardice

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EXCERPT: Cowardice once had something to do with the obligations of community. We used the word when courage faltered and duties were left undone. But now we rarely use or hear it outside of the politics of national security. It is the term of choice for political responses to acts of violence. Consider the diction of President Obama when he called the Boston Marathon bombing a “heinous and cowardly act.” Joining him were the governor of Massachusetts and the Boston Red Sox, among others. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 sponsored a billboard that simply read“#COWARDS,” which overlooked an expressway leading into the city. By that time, commuters had no need of further context. We all understood: terrorists are cowards.

[...] In his new book, Cowardice: A Brief History, Chris Walsh offers the following definition: “A coward is someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do.” The term is loaded with moral assumptions. First there is an assumed notion of duty. A person may have certain duties because of her position in life, as a mother or a soldier, or because of other circumstances, such as happening upon someone in physical danger. But in those situations, duty’s call is typically accompanied by fear. When someone forsakes duties for a reason other than fear, we might call him capricious or negligent—or maybe a follower of his own heart—but we would not call him a coward. Fear also constrains a person from recklessness. Without fear, one might thoughtlessly rush into dangerous circumstances. But that would not count as courage. Courage, then, is the virtue that allows a person to remain dutiful even in the face of fear. Cowardice, by contrast, is the vice that makes someone falter.

Walsh offers a few reasons why we have taken up the word to describe terrorists. The first and perhaps most visceral is that, short of obscenities, it is one of the nastiest words that can be wielded against someone—and has been for a long time. [...] Walsh also suggests that the term provides comfort to Americans. Believing that terrorists are cowardly may assuage the fear of terrorism.

But these uses—to comfort and to condemn—are shorn from the context in which the word was traditionally used, Walsh argues. As he demonstrates in this thoughtful and engaging book, we have witnessed a semantic shift. Gone is the thick moral grammar and the shared language of expectation by which communities judged cowardice or courage. The word no longer connotes the failure to perform one’s duty either in moments of extreme fear or even in the mundane routine of everyday life. It now describes a “rare and monstrous thing,” an act of violence against unarmed civilians, an existential threat to civil society.

One of Walsh’s achievements is to reintroduce us to an earlier time in American history when the epithet had a common currency and circulated quickly in times of fear and war...

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