Terror Attacks Spark Cowardly Debate

ByJosh Gerstein

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 26, 2001 -- 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.

Despite the large response from readers, there have been no complaints from advertisers, she said.

Debate Among Columnists

While some have criticized Maher and Sontag for seeming to be sympathetic to the terrorists, others with decidedly hawkish credentials have also weighed in against calling the suicide hijackers cowards.

"We should stop using the word 'cowards' to describe people who board a 757, ruthlessly kill the pilots, take the controls and fly the plane into the side of an office tower," wrote the editors of the stridently conservative American Spectator. "They are brave and evil."

Even among different writers for the same publication, opinion is split. In his online column for the National Review, Jonah Goldberg argued that an attack on defenseless civilians is always cowardly.

"The superficial 'boldness' of the villains is irrelevant, their cowardice lies in the fact that the 'lucky' ones were able to say 'I love you' one last time," Goldberg wrote.

An article in the print edition of the National Review, written by Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, took exactly the opposite position.

"There was nothing cowardly about the attacks, which were deeds of incredible — albeit perverted — bravery," he wrote.

Past and Present

In the past, some conservatives have also offered their own versions of the criticism Maher and Sontag made of U.S. military operations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized former President Bill Clinton for relying excessively on cruise missiles and high-altitude bombers to accomplish military missions.

A vein of that criticism may have been bared last week by President Bush when he warned, during his address to Congress, that the new war on terrorism would entail risks. "It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat," Bush said.

For its part, the White House stands by the president's view that the hijackers were cowards. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced Maher's comments. "It's a terrible thing to say," Fleischer said. "This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

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