Patrick Buchanan’s recent column on Anders Behring Breivik is almost note perfect, until the very end, where he calls Breivik a “coward.” Buchanan is not the only one to use this canard when discussing Breivik. It is a stock accusation directed at all terrorists.
Remember when George W. Bush crept out of his secure location to accuse the 9/11 hijackers of cowardice? But this is just an abuse of language motivated by anger. Breivik may be a lot of things, but he is no coward.
What is cowardice? Cowardice the inability to master fear. Courage is the ability to master fear so that one can act, or not act, appropriately. The paradigm of fear is of death in battle. But there are many lesser fears that one needs to master as well: the fears of social disapproval, personal failure, and public embarrassment are often greater than the fear of death.
Courage, therefore, is not just one virtue. It is a virtue that makes other virtues possible. We need courage to be honest, just, moderate, wise, and so forth, for almost every decent act carries with it the risk of personal failure or public opposition.
There is a sense is which courage and cowardice are morally neutral. It takes courage to do bad things as well as good ones. Indeed, it takes more courage to do bad things than good ones, because more people will oppose you. So if someone is doing evil, decent people should pray that his courage fails; cowardice suddenly becomes praiseworthy.
I think that Breivik’s killing spree was evil. It is not evil because violence per se is evil. Aside from complete pacifists, everyone recognizes situations in which violence is morally justified. It is not even evil because it is an act of terrorism. A single act by a single man might be terrorism. But a whole series of such acts by a group of men is a war or a revolution. And wars and revolutions can be morally justified.
No, Breivik’s acts were evil simply because he targeted people who were largely innocent of the crimes he deplored: government clerks and passersby in Olso, teenagers and young adults at a Labor Party youth camp. The full horror sinks in with a question: How many of you, dear readers, were politically liberal at age sixteen? How many of you simply believed what your parents believed?
Breivik’s acts were also evil because they will hinder rather than help those trying to save Europe from declining white birthrates and rising non-white immigration. And from my point of view, saving the white race is the most important thing in the world, an end that can justify any means—provided they really are means.
But as evil as Breivik’s acts may have been, they still took nerves of steel; they took courage. Breivik knew very well that he might be facing death. Or, if he survived, he would face a nightmare for the rest of his life: the hatred of healthy people and the adulation of the insane; the betrayal of friends and family; the indignities of interrogation, trial, and imprisonment.
It takes courage to face death. It takes even more courage to face a life of infamy. (A very high percentage of suicides are out of cowardice.)
As Breivik planned and carried out his mission, there were thousands moments of decision when his courage could have failed, but he continued. He did horrible things with his own hands, things that he saw before his very eyes, things that probably sickened him. But he steeled his nerves and kept on killing.
Personally speaking, I am too much of a coward to do what Breivik did, and too much of a coward to have faced the consequences. And I suspect the same is true of the bloggers hurling the word “coward” into cyberspace from the safety of their studies. But we can console ourselves that our form of cowardice—cowardice in the commission of evil—is, after all, a praiseworthy thing.
But Breivik killed people who were unarmed. Doesn’t that make him cowardly? No. It still took courage to do what he did. Yes, it would have taken more courage to face down armed opponents. But as far as he knew, there could have been armed opponents on that island. And even if he knew that his opponents were unarmed, his task still entailed risks. He could have been rushed as he reloaded, for instance. (I would like to know if anything like that was even attempted.) Moreover, he surely had to struggle to master feelings of horror at what he had accomplished.
Granted, the most honorable battle is a duel in which both parties fight with the same weapons out in the open under conditions of strictest equality so that only valor and martial skill matter. It entails the maximum risk and therefore requires the maximum courage.
But it is just wishful thinking to demand that an opponent who enjoys a strategic advantage give that up merely out of a romantic notion of chivalry, particularly since one’s real motive is hardly chivalrous either. It is simply to increase one’s own chances of success.
“Come out here and face me like a man, you coward!” merely translates to “Come out here so I can get an easier shot at you.” One merely phrases it in the language of a playground taunt in the unlikely event that one’s enemy is insecure enough to risk his life proving something to a person he sees fit to kill.
Courage is one of the most important traits we can cultivate. With courage, we can face down the impediments to living a decent and honorable life. Without it, none of our other virtues really matter. Yes, courage in evil is a terrible possibility. But that is possible only because courage makes all things possible.
Because courage is so important, we have to know exactly what it means—and what its opposite means. Thus we cannot afford to abuse words like “coward,” even when our anger is righteous. There is a long list of vices and expletives that can justly describe Anders Berhing Breivik. But coward is not among them.