Friday, October 08, 2004

Neither Cowards nor Lunatics

Are suicide bombers cowards or lunatics? Bill O’Reilly has come down on both sides of this (false) alternative. A while back he insisted against Bill Maher that the 9/11 hijackers were cowards. And just the other night he insisted against Sam Harris that they were lunatics. But both views are mistaken.

A coward is someone who is habitually incapable of mastering his fear, but is instead mastered by it. I say ‘habitually’ because one or even several cowardly acts do not a coward make. A courageous person is someone who is habitually capable of mastering his fear as opposed to being mastered by it. Since both the cowardly and the courageous feel fear, the latter cannot be correctly defined as those who are fearless. Someone who was strictly speaking fearless would be emotionally defective. Courage is not the absence of fear but mastery of it just as cowardice is not the presence of fear but being mastered by it. In everyday English we often refer to a courageous person as ‘fearless,’ but that is just loose talk, good enough for quotidian purposes, but not for philosophical ones.

What I have just said is close to common sense and straight out of Aristotle. Anyone who understands it will understand why Muhammad Atta and Co. cannot be called cowards. It is self-evident that they acted courageously. They mastered their fears and executed the series of actions that they envisaged.

So what was my man O’Reilly thinking? Well, he may have thought that since the actions were evil, and since courage, being a virtue, is good, then evil actions cannot be called courageous. If that is what he was thinking, then he was confused. What makes an action courageous or cowardly is nothing intrinsic to the action, but depends on the agent. (Agent from L. agere, to do.) A courageous (cowardly) action is one performed by a courageous (cowardly) agent. It has nothing to with the intrinsic moral quality of the act, or with the consequences of the act.

Or perhaps O’Reilly was thinking that Atta and the boys attacked defenseless people, and were cowardly for that reason. But that is not right either. To overpower passengers and crew using only box-cutters took considerable physical courage especially when the outcome for the attackers was certain death.

So were the 9/11 terrorists lunatics? Were they insane in a manner to absolve them of moral responsibility for their deeds? This is in effect what O’Reilly maintained against Sam Harris on 4 October. Paraphrasing, his point was that anyone who thinks that driving a jumbo jet into a skyscraper will put them on the fast track to the enjoyment of seventy two black-eyed virgins is crazy!

Harris rightly resisted this notion. The terrorists themselves were quite sane; it was the irrationality of their beliefs that lay at the root of their horrific actions. They had the courage of their (irrational) convictions and the sanity to act upon them. It is not they who were mad, but their religious beliefs. For Harris, suicide bombers are neither cowards, nor lunatics, but "men of perfect faith." (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and thre Future of Reason, Norton, 2004, p. 67)

Sam Harris is right in one respect, wrong in another. He is right in his thesis that suicide bombers are neither cowards nor lunatics. Where he goes wrong is in his claim that religious faith as such is the problem. His is quite a radical thesis: not that militant Islam is the problem, or Islam in general, but religion in general. At the root of the problem of terrorism today is not the fact that certain evil individuals have hijacked Islam (supposedly a religion of peace) to serve their own ends, but religious faith itself. His claim is that

. . . while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths. (72)
Harris means this to apply not only to Muslims, but to Christians, Jews, and presumably adherents of every religion. Catholics, for example, believe irrationally that a man 2000 years dead, Jesus Christ, ". . . can now be eaten in the form of a cracker." (73)

To evaluate Harris’ central claim will be the task of forthcoming posts.