Is Terrorism Courageous?

Is Terrorism Courageous? January 14, 2015

The religious fanatics who murdered twelve people at Charlie Hebdo‘s offices last week were tracked down by the French police after a two-day manhunt, ending in a shootout at a print shop in the town of Dammartin-en-Goële where both of them were killed. One of their accomplices was also killed by police after taking hostages at a kosher supermarket.

Despite my earlier fears, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t plan to shut its doors, and in fact their next issue (featuring Mohammed on the cover) will have a print run of 3 million copies, almost fifty times its usual circulation. It’s nowhere near a happy ending, but under these circumstances, a statement of defiance might be the best we could hope for.

In the comments on my previous post, there was a vigorous debate over whether the terrorists who committed this act were cowards. I chimed in briefly, but I wanted to clarify my thoughts at more length.

Here’s an elaboration of what I said: Arming yourself with heavy weapons and carrying out a plot to commit mass murder, knowing that you’ll almost certainly be killed by the police or imprisoned for the rest of your life even if you succeed, requires a certain indifference to physical danger and discomfort. And that goes double for terrorist plots where the death of the plotter is a key element. I like to think you couldn’t ever convince me to fly a plane into a crowded building or to don a suicide vest packed with explosives – both for the obvious moral reasons and because I would hope I have the same sense of self-preservation as any average human being.

When someone displays indifference to their own survival while acting in the service of a cause we agree with, we usually call that quality courage or bravery. Now, obviously, those terms are inappropriate to describe terrorists, because they convey a sense of moral approval. Still, I think we can agree that there ought to be some word for someone who acts in the sure knowledge of their own death. “Fearless” might be a more fitting term, or even “reckless” – but “cowardly” certainly doesn’t seem right.

An argument often heard here is that religious terrorists are motivated by a belief that their souls will go straight to paradise if they’re killed in the service of jihad. (We saw this in this chilling poem carried by one of the 9/11 hijackers.) Given this belief, you could argue, there’s a reason they don’t fear death, and so it takes no special effort for them to suppress the survival instinct. And that may well be true, but I’m of the opinion that moral terms like “courageous” or “reckless” should only apply to a person’s actions, regardless of what motivates them in their own heads. An inquisitor might sincerely believe that they’re saving a person’s soul from hell by torturing him into confessing sins, but we don’t judge them as any less evil because of that belief, nor should we.

However, regardless of their indifference to physical danger, there’s one sense in which the Charlie Hebdo terrorists were unquestionably cowards. Rather than meet speech with speech, or try to refute an argument they disagreed with by offering a better argument, they chose to resort to violence to silence criticisms they didn’t want to hear. This betrays a profound intellectual cowardice: because they knew they couldn’t overcome or refute contrary ideas, they tried to destroy them through brute force. This is an implicit admission of their inability to counter them on a rational level.

A different but related species of intellectual cowardice was displayed by the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper that Photoshopped female world leaders out of an image of a solidarity march in Paris. (This included Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who was digitally erased from her own city.) Although it wasn’t violent, this act, too, is a refusal to face reality: the religious mindset that would rather obliterate all contrary facts than confront them honestly and make its own case in response.


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