Politics & Policy

Crossbows & Suicide Bombers

Stem-cell-free zone.

This column won’t be about stem cells, but if stem cells are what you’re looking for, check out the rest of NRO. We have more stuff, from more impressive people, than anyplace else on the web or on paper. You can even find, if you’re interested, my own meager contribution to our NRO stem-cell symposium. And if that moral dilemma isn’t your cup of tea, there’s still the ongoing brouhaha between Stanley Kurtz, Jonathan Rauch, and others on gay marriage.

But I’m here to tackle another vexing moral question. And, no, it’s not “How can Jonah look at himself in the mirror after making so many mistakes in Wednesday’s column?”

We’ve fixed a few of them, by the way. But it’s still like one of those diner placemats for kids where you have to figure out all the things wrong with the picture as you wait for your cheeseburger.

But one thing I got right in Wednesday’s column was the idea that suicide bombing is cowardly. Surprisingly, quite a few readers disagreed. They pointed out that while such terrorist acts are evil, wrongheaded, counterproductive, whatever — they are not cowardly. Indeed, some people find terrorists to be quite daring. After all, suicide bombers sacrifice their own lives for their cause. And even normal terrorists run the risk of getting caught and being dealt with harshly.

This argument has long been an intellectual and moral peeve of mine. Back in 1996, The Weekly Standard ran an unsigned editorial item in their Scrapbook section denouncing Bill Clinton and his predecessors for calling terrorist attacks the work of cowards. After Americans were killed in a terrorist assault in Saudi Arabia, the Standard observed, “If there is one act more predictable than the Pledge of Allegiance before school, it’s the invocation of ‘cowardice’ by U.S. presidents every time a bomb goes off.”

Indeed, the Standard concluded, “There’s something weird about calling terrorists cowardly. Sure, they don’t engage in open, head-to-head warfare, but as a matter of simple fact, they’re rather bold. And let’s not forget that the latest attack was in response to Saudi Arabia’s recent beheading of four other terrorists. The cowardly avoid doing things that might get them beheaded. Enough already. Try ‘wicked,’ or, better still, ‘evil.’”

The Standard then suggested that the tendency of world leaders to denounce the “cowardice” of terrorists began in 1969, when the Pope condemned Maoist bombings in Rome and Milan as “cowardly and wicked.”

Just as in their support of John McCain, they were half-right. You see, the popes have been denouncing cowardly killing from afar for a very, very long time. And, because I was precisely the sort of Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed kid who thought swords and other medieval stuff were really cool, I happen to know a lot about crossbows. And, it just so happens, that’s relevant.

In 1097, Pope Urban II outlawed the use of the crossbow. Four decades later, Pope Innocent II convened a Lateran Council with nearly 1,000 prelates. They forbade “under penalty of anathema” not just the use of crossbows, “the dastard’s weapon,” but the entire “deadly and God-detested art of slingers and archers.” You could get a waiver if you were on a crusade, but that’s a different conversation.

Of course, it wasn’t just the Catholic Church. Conrad III, the Holy Roman Emperor (who we all know was not Holy, not Roman, and not known for particularly good teeth), banned the use of the crossbow in his army and his realm. Flanders — the nation, not Homer Simpson’s neighbor — outlawed the crossbow as well.

Now there were lots of reasons for the crossbow crackdown. Indeed, one of the more interesting lessons is for gun controllers. You see, with a crossbow (or long bow), a peasant could kill a knight while staying clear of the knight’s broadsword. Obviously, knights had been better armed and were generally in better health than the average peasant. Their military superiority only reinforced the aristocracy’s sense of (divine) entitlement. But the crossbow leveled the playing field.

In a sense, it was a democratizing force. The crossbow radically reduced the ability of the knights to ride roughshod over the populace, and hence was considered destabilizing to the rigid social order. This lesson should be familiar to anyone who believes the right to bear arms to be a bulwark against tyranny. If you are as strong as the representatives of the state, the state has to treat you with respect.

But that, too, is a discussion for another day.

Because I want to talk about the down side of the crossbow, i.e., its role as an assassin’s weapon. Because you could kill from a safe distance, many rightly saw the crossbow as morally suspect. It defied the chivalric code, which said you must face your enemy and make your intentions clear — that is, declare the equivalent of war. (This is also a very useful lesson for people who don’t understand that technology can undermine or change culture a lot more than stupid ideas by French and German philosophers. See, for example, my more interesting piece “Conservatism without History” or “The Next Big Thing.”)

And, in this sense, I think the popes had it exactly right. Killing from a safe distance is cowardly. And you can spare me all the “The army does that all the time” stuff. You understand my point. Armies are primarily designed to fight other armies. The trouble with terrorist attacks is that there’s never even an assumption that the non-military victims can defend themselves. Those children murdered in a Sbarro in Israel were not military targets, and they had no chance to defend themselves.

You may think the guy with the dynamite is brave, for blowing himself up in a pizza joint full of kids on summer vacation. But the truth is he’s a mental case. These young men are brainwashed. They are brought to cemeteries and told to lie down in a grave, to get over their fear and experience how “peaceful” it is in a tomb. And even if you don’t think they’re brainwashed or addled or anything like that, remember that it takes some 60 people to organize a suicide bombing. What are these people, if not cowards? They quite literally let someone else do their “fighting” — and dying — for them.

The word “coward” comes from the Old French cuard, essentially meaning someone who runs with his tail between his legs. The fact that the punishment of terrorist acts is severe, doesn’t make terrorists brave. There are very stiff penalties on the books for beating up old ladies. If went out and walloped some granny, would you call me courageous?

The point of calling terrorists cowards is twofold: First, it happens to be true, and second, they really don’t like it. Calling them “evil” is fine. But they already think the same of those they murder. Why pay them the compliment of calling them brave?

Now that we’re done with that cheery topic…


1. My speech to the Young Americans Foundation will appear on C-SPAN tomorrow (Saturday) evening at 8 P.M. E.S.T., and again at 11:00 P.M. It is an unrehearsed stream-of-consciousness on all sorts of things that’s sure to make libertarians and fans of dignified public speaking cranky — or, in the case of some libertarians, crankier.

2. Thanks so much for all of the suggestions for road trip stuff. The itinerary is overflowing.

3. Remember to check out National Review Online Weekend for lots of cool, cool stuff.


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