TCS Daily

Are Terrorists Courageous?

By Mary Grabar - August 18, 2004 12:00 AM

I did not realize that my long-standing disagreement with Bill Maher - over whether or not the 9/11 terrorists displayed courage -- was due to "groupthink," or the "current outbreak of droidlike conformity." But according to Barbara Ehrenreich, in an editorial titled "You thinking what I'm thinking? You better be" (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 7/18/04), my zombie-like state can be traced to "the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism, and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags. Bill Maher lost his job for pointing out that, whatever else they were, the Sept. 11 terrorists weren't cowards. . . ."

I did, I admit, affix the small flag given to me by my bank teller to my car window, as well as one to my mailbox, and in other ways displayed my patriotism.

I did, along with the masses, gape with horror at scenes on television. I took their side and disagreed with the messages coming over the e-mail list in the English Department where I toiled away at teaching freshmen and finishing my dissertation about where blame was to be laid.

I did later, on my own, read Aristotle. Though he is verboten in the classroom and in the media, I admit to seeking clarification on the current debate, which is a question and conclusion that goes like this:

"Who is to say that a person who commits suicide in pursuit of his beliefs while killing thousands is not as brave as the enlisted service man who fights in a war for his country?" Both are fighting for their ideals with the risk of death. The implication is that Middle Eastern terrorists and American soldiers are on the same moral plain when it comes to the issue of bravery. After all, it's their definition of bravery and furthermore an act of self-sacrifice in the face of the oppressor, which as we all know, is the evil West.

Those not as highly trained in this particular form of argumentation might have responded that it is no act of courage to kill thousands of people if you do not value your own life. Suicide, since at least the advent of Christianity, has been seen as an act of cowardice, an avoidance of pain and the challenges presented by God. Courage is something you have when you want to live and when you fight an enemy that has the capacity to kill you first. Those people working in those towers were not armed.

And this is what Aristotle would say today. In the Nichomachean Ethics he distinguishes between what is rash and what is brave. He demonstrates that though both may appear to be similar, what sets bravery apart is its foundation in reason; brave acts are performed for "the sake of the fine." Pseudo-bravery is aligned with attributes of animals who attack because they have been wounded or frightened and act on impulse. Under such a false definition of bravery would fall hungry asses who keep on eating even if they are beaten and adulterers who "do many daring actions because of lust."

Aristotle concludes that

"the brave person will find death and wounds painful, and suffer them unwillingly, but he will endure them because that is fine or because failure is shameful. Indeed, the truer it is that he has every virtue and the happier he is, the more pain he will feel at the prospect of death. For this sort of person, more than anyone, finds it worthwhile to be alive, and knows he is being deprived of the greatest goods, and this is painful. But he is not less brave for all that; presumably, indeed, he is all the braver, because he chooses what is fine in war at the cost of all these goods."

The soldier does not want to die. He wants to see his children grow up; he wants to enjoy all the benefits of freedom that we take for granted. He does not go to battle with the intention of dying. In fact, he tries to stay alive while accomplishing his objective.

This is a far cry from the egomaniac who firmly believes that death can only bring him benefits and glory and with this aim hurtles through the air with innocents along with him to his objective. On a smaller scale we could use the analogy of the mentally ill person who drives his car onto the sidewalk because he believes the voices that tell him such an act would assure him an end to the pain that he is experiencing on this earth. Usually we do not call such people brave. We lock them up in institutions.

Unfortunately, Aristotle's discussion of bravery is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the institutions where opinions are disseminated. Should we be thinking what Ehrenreich is thinking? If she and her colleagues in the classrooms would continue in their campaign to abolish Aristotle and the other dead white men, then, yes.

A version of this article appeared at


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