Calling mass murderers (and terrorists) “cowards” is not an insult befitting the characterological substance of these perpetrators. If we’re to assign generic labels to people who commit heinous acts, the labels should reflect the atrocious nature of their actions. Why instead do we call them something school kids call a friend who won’t dive off the high diving board, or go on the Full Throttle roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, or take a drag of marijuana off a joint being passed around?
I know why we do it, actually. We do it because we cling to that naïve notion that insults are as effective now that we are adults as they were when we were children. And we believe that being called a coward is one of the worst insults we can sling.
Oh. My. God. Will we ever grow up?
Of course at times we use terms like “monster” or “madman” or “mentally deranged”, which may be closer to the truth in some respects, but not in a technical sense. For instance, if a person is clinically depressed, that person may technically have a mental illness per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but (a) has not been adjudicated mentally ill and therefore would not be precluded from buying a gun, and (b) is no more likely than anyone else to commit a harmful act with a weapon. And a young man with lifetime developmental issues who can legally own (and is encouraged by his mother to own and shoot) a gun may at some point become mentally deranged, or act in a monstrous way, but he is not, until the moment of his devastating attack, considered a madman.
And it seems to me that neither can technically be considered a “coward”. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines coward as “someone who is too afraid to do what is right or expected; someone who is not at all brave or courageous,” and “one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity.”
Now we can quibble about the meaning of brave & courageous (both imply doing good things, but “brave” only means “feeling or showing no fear; not afraid,” and “courageous” means “very brave; having or showing courage”). “Courage,” of course, is the stuff of heroes: “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous,” and “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”
Okay, so think of any terrorist, suicide bombers included, mass murderers included, the shooter of police officers and civilians in Dallas Texas included. Were they feeling or showing fear? We don’t really know for sure, do we, but my guess is possibly feeling it but not showing it and they went on to do what was, by any reasonable person’s assessment, probably difficult as well as dangerous. And they also had the strength, from whatever source, to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty. Am I making myself clear?
Logic tells me they weren’t cowards. They didn’t do what was right or expected, but can anyone honestly claim it was because they were fearful of doing what was right or expected? I think there’s another factor behind their actions other than cowardice.
Take the recent Dallas shooter, for example. And before I use him as an example, let me point out that before he was a “coward,” he was a “hero.” That’s right. He was in the military reserves, and did a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Although it didn’t end well, he was, by our stock definition of our military service members who go off to war, a hero.
So we have this hero, who was probably trained to skillfully use an assault rifle (and yes, they are assault rifles, because their sole purpose is to assault another living being). Not only that, but he had a legal right to own a gun. Or as many guns as he wanted, I imagine, and was also legally entitled to openly carry his gun. He was just what the NRA insists will protect us all from bad guys with guns. He was a good guy with a gun. Until he wasn’t. He clearly had a lot of hatred in him, and certainly had some characterological issues that should have precluded his carrying a gun. But how could we know that until he committed the vicious, sadistic act that got him labeled a “coward.”
“Oh, crumb! How come they’re calling me a coward when just yesterday I was a hero? Next time I see those guys….”
Well, he won’t be seeing those guys again, but all of us who are left behind have to continue seeing them and hearing them mislabel and generalize and as far as I’m concerned, minimize the horror that is wrought each time someone grabs a gun with rapid-fire ability and high-capacity magazine and points it at as many people as possible while pulling that trigger in a deadly staccato of rage.
President Obama spoke with accuracy in calling the Dallas shooting a “vicious, calculated and despicable attack” by someone with “twisted motivations,” and in saying that “when people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic.”
So rather than “coward,” can we call terrorists and mass murderers “vicious” and “despicable”? We usually know nothing about their character beforehand, but only learn after the fact how twisted their motivations may be, how malevolently calculating they have become, and the extent to which dark emotions, thoughts and inclinations have contaminated their hearts and minds and driven them to desperate, destructive and calamitous ends.
We can’t say until we look at their history if they were cowardly. All we know from their violent acts is they were angry and/or hateful and they had a weapon with which to express themselves.