Within our society, we have developed the custom of labeling suicide bombers as cowards. Though he was not the first to use the term, then-President George W. Bush quickly labeled the Sept. 11 hijackers as cowards, and we repeatedly hear from our generals that those who kill American troops with improvised explosive devices are cowards. This seems odd to me.
I’m thinking about this in the context of modern warfare. The Associated Press (Asif Shahzad and Kimberly Dozier) reported recently that death by U.S. drones has grown to record frequency, with 50 people killed in Pakistan in 12 strikes during the first two weeks of September. I don’t know where the pilot-operators of these particular 12 drones were based, and it’s probably irrelevant, but, as I understand it, they could be based in Virginia or California, or, theoretically, even Minnesota — essentially playing video games, except that the death and destruction are real.
A little over 200 years ago, we had red-uniformed Brits fighting buckskinned colonials who hid behind trees. Now we have burka-wearing terrorists with explosives strapped to their chests fighting American servicemen, and servicewomen, some of whom are working eight-hour shifts at computer terminals before dinner with the spouse. If the Taliban are cowards, they are cowards in the tradition of Revolutionary soldiers who refused to stand in formation as an army of the day was expected to do.
I do not criticize modern American warriors for choosing the close-to-home computer terminal over a tent and a Humvee on the Afghan-Pakistan border — I’d make the same choice in a flash. But does it really make sense to describe our warriors as brave and our enemies, people apparently eager to give their lives for what they believe in, as “cowards?”
What difference does it make what we call them, you ask.
The consequences of mislabeling
It matters because mislabeling leads to misunderstanding, and misunderstanding leads to underestimating. And throughout history, underestimating one’s enemies has led to many a shocking defeat.
The rational response to Sept. 11 attack would have been twofold:
1. Let’s find out who did this and then go get them; and
2. Let’s figure out why they did this so we can prevent such events in the future.
We did neither. We tentatively pursued the first task, but got distracted by old grudges with Iraq, who we knew, even then, had nothing to do with Sept 11.
George W. Bush addressed the second task by telling us that these were people “who hate freedom.” This, of course, is preposterous; they hated us because of something they perceive that we had done to make their lives miserable. I do not suggest that we needed then, or need now to apologize for others’ misperceptions, but we need to start by understanding these perceptions.
Instead, we label our enemies as cowards, as crazy, as freedom-haters, and we kill them with drones piloted from air-conditioned offices. This is not the solution to terrorism.
John Trepp recently retired after 30 years as the executive director of Tasks Unlimited, which provides recovery services for people with severe and persistent mental illnesses.