“Cowardly.” Again this past weekend, as the world watched the all-too-familiar scene of a violent and vile Islamist assault on an Israeli-owned target, that adverb came to the fore. British foreign secretary William Hague condemned the attacks as “callous and cowardly” while Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta chose precisely the same word in more than one address.
Coward is the epithet of choice when referring to terrorists, even when it so regularly seems misapplied. American comedian Bill Maher was famously forced off the air after the September 11 attacks. His offense? Daring to suggest that calling the hijackers “cowards” made no sense, as a willingness to give up one’s life was an inoculation against the charge. Chastened by his example no one has dared point out the obvious problem in continuing to use the term for men who are prepared to die. Coward is such a necessary word that its use must not be questioned. But why?
It was Homer who introduced the idea that cowardice was the worst of all masculine failings. Heroism, he argued, was indistinguishable from physical bravery – and to be seen as lacking courage was the greatest disaster that could befall a man. “How can I face my fellow Trojans if I walk away from battle like a coward?” argues Hector to his wife, shortly before he meets his doom. Odysseus reminds himself that “Cowards flee the fight, but a hero in war stands stubbornly, whether he be smitten or whether he smite another.” It’s not that cowardice meant something different to Homer than it does to us – Odysseus’ remark could be uttered nearly verbatim by a contemporary MMA fighter. It’s that Homer believed cowardice, especially a cowardice that was seen by others, deserved elevation above every other failing.
Contrast this with the Jewish conception of heroism. King David is certainly physically courageous (his youthful encounter with Goliath establishes that), but it’s his relationship with God, not his absence of cowardice, that marks him for greatness. Hector and Odysseus worry about how they will appear to others, not the gods; David worries about how he appears to Hashem. Impiety, rather than cowardice, is his greatest fear.
The Western civilization to which both Israel and the Kenyan elite belong (President Kenyatta studied at Amherst) rests on both Judaic and Greek foundations. All of us owe a great deal to both cultures. Both Hector and David are lionized as masculine ideals, the former with universities and condoms dedicated to the Trojans, the latter with arguably one of the most popular given names for boys in the Western world. Yet when it comes to conceiving of heroism – or more accurately, its despised opposite – our rhetoric of cowardice is entirely Greek.
t’s not just our politicians who deploy the rhetoric that there’s no one worse than a coward. Presidents and foreign ministers learned the Greatest Insult of All as schoolboys on the playground. They would have learned, as Odysseus points out, that when it comes to schoolyard scraps or sports, victory is not the most important thing. Not giving into fear is the most important thing.
As the welcome, if still tentative acceptance of homosexuality has begun to spread globally, the accusation of being gay has lost some of its power, even among boys. That leaves “coward” as the last – and as a consequence, even more effective – socially acceptable insult for young (and not so young) men to throw at one another.
Bill Maher was right. Cowardice is inextricably linked to the refusal to take risk for fear of death or injury. Those who do undertake actions in which there is a reasonable expectation that they will die are, by definition, not cowards. It should be easy to acknowledge this. The English language is not bereft of other insults. Two of the most gifted orators of the 20th century, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, spent years fighting against Hitler. They called him evil, they called him a monstrous tyrant. They never called him a coward. They didn’t need to.
We don’t honor terrorists by acknowledging, however grudgingly, that they are often physically brave. We don’t honor their victims by insisting that their murderers were fearful and unmanly. This isn’t about respecting the enemy. It’s about respecting the reality that a Homeric culture that idolizes physical bravery is only one of the pillars of our society. We need a little less Hector and a little more David. And we need to respect that words have meaning.