Terror Attacks Spark Cowardly Debate

ByABC News
September 26, 2001, 9:03 PM

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 26 -- Were the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cowards?

Within hours of the attacks, President Bush twice used the c-word to describe the terrorists' plot. In a statement at an Air Force base in Louisiana, he declared, "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward . Make no mistake: the U.S. will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts."

The House and Senate soon followed suit. A joint resolution passed the next night labeled the suicide hijackings as "heinous and cowardly attacks."

An alternative view came from Bill Maher, host of the ABC late-night talk show Politically Incorrect. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," Maher said on the show last week. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

Backlash Over Coward Opinion

Maher's comments prompted significant public outrage and calls on advertisers to boycott the program. Sears and FedEx heeded those calls. Several of the stations that normally carry Maher's show have pulled it from the air, at least temporarily. Maher has apologized, saying his remarks were ill-timed.

While there's been a great outcry over Maher's remarks, similar comments from others have drawn a less intense reaction. In the New Yorker magazine, essayist Susan Sontag wrote, "If the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage [a morally neutral virtue]: Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Sept. 11's slaughter, they were not cowards."

A spokeswoman for the magazine said the piece generated more mail than usual. "We've had a lot of letters to the editor, both pro and con," said Perri Dorset. She said the first batch of letters were overwhelmingly negative. "It started out just 8 to 1 [critical of Sontag]. It's about 4 to 1 now," Dorset said.