Monday, September 04, 2006

Is honor worth dying for?

David Warren has written a piece accusing the two Fox News Journalists who converted to Islam under duress of being cowards. Xrlq, Patterico, and a bunch of their commenters are coming down pretty hard on Warren for saying this. My own first reaction was "Of course those men weren't cowards. What difference did it make if they mouthed a few meaningless words? They just did what they had to do to survive." But on further reflection I believe that Warren is right. After all, what is a coward if it is not someone who makes his own survival his highest goal, who thinks that his personal honor is worth nothing compared to his desire to continue breathing?

One error of Warren's critics is clear from comments like these from Xrlq:
From the comfort and safety of your home in a civilized western country, lecture former hostages …
I’d bet good money you’d have done the same as them if beheading was a possible result of your non-compliance.
A thought experiment: your distant cousin and two other captured soldiers are told, “state for the camera that you have converted to Islam, and you will be released. If you do not, you will be beheaded. Need help making up your mind? Here’s a cell phone, call anyone in the world for 15 seconds of advice.” The first guy calls Warren; the second guy calls Xrlq; one beheading and one release. Now your cousin calls you.
In other words, these people are making the same mistake I made initially: "Well, I would probably capitulate in those circumstances and of course I'm not a coward…" But is it so obvious that I'm not a coward? I'm a product of my culture, just like everyone else is. Is my culture one that brings young men up to be courageous? Well, the answer is clearly "no". We are told constantly not to take risks. It's up to the police to protect you, don't try to do it yourself. If you get mugged on the street, give the mugger what he wants. Seat belts, air bags, extreme drunk-driving laws, bicycle helmets, extreme anti-smoking laws, official dietary advice, orange vests, fire drills, yearly checkups, posted warnings about the possibility that maybe some possibly-harmful chemicals are used in the area … society tells me over and over that my life and safety are critical. No risk, is too small for the government to make a law about it.

The fact is that we live in a cowardly culture and so we are ill-equipped to judge whether an act is cowardly or not. Having us judge whether an act is cowardly is like asking a slavery-era southerner whether something is cruel. He would have to check his first impression. That white man just beat that black man for talking back to him; is that cruel? The first impression would likely be, "Well, if some uppity n*r talked back to me like that then I'd …". He has to take a step back and try to think outside his culture --not how would he behave, but how should he behave. Even a slave-owning southerner ought to have been able to grasp the rightness of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So it is with us. We can grasp the value of personal honor even if we don't value it very highly. The evidence of this is the way that we admire Fabrizio Quattrocchi, the Italian who defied his kidnappers and died like an Italian. He brought honor to himself, to his family, and to his country. With his courage this great man turned a pathetic tragedy into a bittersweet victory for the people who cared about him.

So don't ask yourself whether Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were cowards, ask someone who would know, someone who understood courage. Put on your channeling helmet and ask General George Patton. Or what about Davy Crocket or Francis Drake or the Minutemen? What about the Vietnam War POWs who refused to cooperate with the North Vietnamese even under daily torture and beatings? (no fair asking them in public; you have to ask them in private and they have to trust you enough to tell you what they really think). It doesn't have to be men that you admire for their courage either. What would Genghis Khan say, or Geronimo or Osama bin Laden? One doesn't have to be a good guy to understand courage. What did the terrorists who captured Centanni and Wiig think? Did those men think that the two were cowards?

But is that really fair? After all, if it isn't appropriate to judge courage by our own low standards is it fair to judge them by others who have unusually high standards? Patterico and Xrlq suggested in Xrlq's comments that there is a middle ground; that the reporters were neither courageous nor cowardly, but just normal. Maybe their behavior was normal, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't cowardly. Ask yourself this: what would a coward have done differently? If you are going to say that they were not cowards then you ought to be able to point out some distinction, some factor of their behavior that separates them from the cowards that they could have been if they hadn't been merely "normal". I confess that I can think of nothing.

By all appearances, these two reporters capitulated entirely and without reservation to violent enemies of their people. Their courage was put to the test and they did absolutely nothing to demonstrate courage. I don't see how we can call that anything but cowardice.

UPDATE: It never occurred to me until now that I had to say this, but I suppose I should: even though I categorize Wiig and Centani's behavior as technically cowardly, I don't endorse Warren's offensve remarks about not forgiving the hostages or not being willing to say their names. Their actions were both understandable and forgivable. What they have done since is considrably less understandable and forgivable.

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