Thursday, December 27, 2007

"You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means."

And the word for today is "cowardly".

We heard it again from Bush: "The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," he said. "Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice."

Here are a couple of straightforward definitions:

American Heritage Dictionary -
adj. Exhibiting the characteristics of a coward, particularly ignoble fear: a cowardly surrender.

cow'ard·li·ness n., cow'ard·ly adv.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

lacking courage; ignobly timid and faint-hearted; "cowardly dogs, ye will not aid me then"- P.B.Shelley [ant: brave]

WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University.

Now Bill Maher got fired from his job at ABC for making pretty much this same point, so I'm not making a brand new comment here. Still, I think it's worth talking about, because people who debase the language by using words to mean whatever they want them to mean are devaluing our common linguistic currency.

And that's what they're doing now. When the Bushies say "cowardly" they mean some kind of generic quality that we don't like. They used it to describe the September 11 terrorists, and now they're using it to describe Benazir Bhutto's assassins.

The word, though, is clearly inapposite in both circumstances. The September 11 terrorists were gladly facing death to carry out their aims. Similarly, although the facts are a bit unclear, the leading theory seems to be that the person who killed Bhutto got through the crowd and her security, shot her, then detonated himself when her security guys landed on him. Again, this demonstrates the willingness to face death for the sake of his religio-political views.

What's my point? Whatever you want to call these guys, they're not cowards. Words matter, and we should start paying attention to the words we use and what they mean.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the word cowardly does fit here, if you look at the situation differently.

You said, “this demonstrates the willingness to face death for the sake of his religio-political views.”

Well, I say, this demonstrates the unwillingness to face the consequences of his actions, to answer for his crimes (both in answering the questions of why he did this, who he was working for, etc., and in facing whatever punishment his crimes warranted), and to bravely take a stand for his religio-political views.

If the guy succeeded in killing Ms. Bhutto before he took his own life, then the job was already done. Taking his life only served the purpose of shielding himself from the fallout of his actions. Sounds pretty cowardly to me.

If you believe in a god, and are confident that he will reward you in the afterlife, death is not something to be feared. This guy went out on his terms. The alternative would have much worse. Just look at the rioting there now.

December 28, 2007 11:15 AM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

I see what you're saying, but I'm still not sure I buy it.

For instance, most Americans are religious and believe in the Christian ideas of god and heaven. Still, although they may be confident of their reward in heaven, we rightly consider them heroes when they willingly face death for their country or for other people. The fact that they think they will go to heaven after they die doesn't make us think they are cowardly, or less than brave, when they risk their lives.

December 28, 2007 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A willingness to face death or injury to do good for another is brave, but the willingness to self-inflict death as a means to escape the consequences of your actions is cowardly.

Besides, not fearing death is not the same as not wanting death. I am not afraid to die, but I don't want to leave my family because they would experience grief, loss of a caregiver and educator, and likely a serious change of lifestyle that would be very difficult for them.

The two scenarios are not really comparable, though. Many of these Muslim extremists are told that dying for a cause guarantees their place in Heaven. In Islam, there is a balance sheet, so to speak, of evil versus good deeds. One is never assured of their salvation, as is the case in Christianity. Someone with a not-so-stellar track record would jump at the chance to wipe the slate clean in their favor by dying the death of a martyr, or what they think is a martyr.

I still think that these attacks are seen as cowardly because the attacker escapes the consequences of his actions. There is something frustrating about not being able to hold someone accountable. It seems unfair. I think that is why some people use the term coward, in the sense that the perpetrator took the easy way out. (Of course, that requires seeing death as the easy way out.)

Personally, I agree that it is not the best choice of words. I was just presenting the case.

December 28, 2007 2:57 PM  

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