Profiles in cowardice

Posted: Sep 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Mark Bingham phoned his mother. "I want you to know that I love you very much, in case I don't see you again." A short while later, Bingham's plane crashed in the woods outside Pittsburgh. Peter Hanson was traveling with his wife and young daughter. He called his parents, too, perhaps in an effort to be together with them one last time. The Hansons' plane was the second to smash into the World Trade Center. I didn't know Bingham or the Hansons. But I did know Barbara Olson. She was a friend of mine. We weren't particularly close, but we were close enough that she went out of her way to be very kind to me on several occasions and she was like family to some friends of mine. Suffice it to say, we were more than close enough for me to ache in a way I never have when I heard she'd been murdered in the terrorist attacks. In what must be the smallest of all possible consolations for her husband, Ted, Barbara was able to make a phone call too. Presumably - and hopefully - she got to tell her husband she loved him. From the news accounts, we only know for sure that she told her husband the plane was being hijacked by knife-wielding thugs and that she wanted advice about what she should do. "She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn't so but it is," Ted Olson said with his usual precision. Barbara had taken an earlier plane so she could be with her husband on his birthday. But of the as-yet-uncounted thousands who are dead or dying, there's no doubt that most of them never had an opportunity to tell their mothers, wives, husbands or fathers that they loved them. The people who leapt to their deaths from the top floors of the World Trade Center certainly didn't get such a chance. And this goes to the heart of why the people responsible for this carnage are cowards. Calling terrorist acts "cowardly" has become so reflexive these days, I suspect most people have no idea what it means, even though we usually think of being cowardly as being timid. After all, the villains responsible acted boldly, sacrificing their own lives. When Hollywood eventually gets around to telling this story, the terrorists will undoubtedly be portrayed as evil. But it's unlikely we will see them as timid or fearful - despite the fact that the people behind the attack don't have enough courage even to accept responsibility. Perhaps because of our culture's growing unwillingness to "judge" others - especially other cultures - we've defined cowardice in the most superficial terms of being meek. But there's a deeper, more evil form of cowardice. In 1137, Pope Innocent II banned the use of crossbows - the "dastard's weapon" - under penalty of anathema because killing from a safe distance, without declaring intent, defies everything the world understands as chivalrous. More relevant for today, the Church objected to the fact that killing people by surprise didn't merely deprive the victim of the ability to defend himself, it robbed him of his chance for last rites, foreclosing any chance for final reconciliation with God. We live in a more secular age. It's unknowable how many of the victims wanted to make peace with God. But we can be sure they would have wanted the chance to reconcile with their families, if only to say "I love you" one last time. This is just one of the reasons why the constant comparisons to the villainy of Pearl Harbor are so inadequate. Put aside the hardening fact that, most likely, many more people died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, than the 2,403 people killed in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. All but 68 of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were military personnel. Even in peacetime, soldiers and sailors assume risks. As heinous and infamous as the assault on Pearl Harbor was, it was nonetheless an assault on a military installation. Even in times of declared war, when the bombing of civilians is a tragic side effect, the non-military population knows that death can come at any time. As paltry as the opportunities may be, people have the chance to settle their affairs with God and family. But the World Trade Center was no military outpost, and until Sept. 11, we were not at war. Mark Bingham, the Hanson family and my friend Barbara Olson had no reason to think that their lives would be cut short by fiends with knives and box cutters. That's why Barbara asked her husband, "What should I do?" She was an innocent in every sense. Perhaps, I wonder, would it be easier to see the terrorists' cowardice if they conspired solely to murder children or infants? Everyone knows killing babies, even when it's a lot of dangerous work, is never courageous. Well, it is the exact same principle here. According to the experts, these villains practiced and prepared for months in their hope to kill tens of thousands of people in an unsuspecting instant. The crime would have been no greater if the World Trade Center were a giant daycare center. Those within were just as defenseless and as innocent as children. In fact, in a sense this crime is even worse. At least babies wouldn't feel the desire to say "I love you" before they die.