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Why Choosing Our Goal Carefully Matters As Much As Courageously Achieving Them


Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001

We are at war, so our leaders tell us, but thus far it is a war of rhetoric alone. Our arsenal is full of antinomies. We are good. They (whoever they may be) are evil. We are strong. They are weak. We will win. They will lose.

The language of crisis is telling, and before our bullets start flying and our soldiers dying — as some of them inevitably must — we should think carefully about what we are saying. The messages we send now will be burned into the consciousness of the next generation as surely as the images of fiery death that already sear our memories.

Not Cowards Exactly, Just Men Without Virtue

Our leaders and many others tell us that the terrorists are cowards while we possess undaunted courage. But the terrorists are not cowards. It is not an act of cowardice to commit oneself for two years to the single-minded purpose of training for one's death. Nor is it an act of cowardice to implement that training and pitilessly steer a jetliner into a skyscraper — and oblivion.

No, the terrorists have courage. They have a terrible, cruel, and twisted courage, but it is courage nonetheless.

So, too, they have many of the other attributes our leaders would appropriate for ourselves: Determination. Resilience. Unity. And a steely resolve.

These attributes enable men and women to act, and to act with purpose, focus, and direction, but they make no guarantee as to what the moral content of those actions may be. Courage, determination, unity, resilience, resolve — they free us from constraints such as fear, inertia, isolation, injury, and indecision. But they tell us nothing about virtue and righteousness, without which courage and the rest may be as much the handmaidens of evil as of good.

Courage We Will Have, But Towards What End?

In the days ahead, I have no doubt that Americans will show their courage, determination, unity, resilience, and resolve. Indeed, they already have, starting with those selfless firefighters and police officers who risked and gave everything that so many others could live.

Edward Lazarus writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books, most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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