21/04/2013 19:02 BST | Updated 21/06/2013 06:12 BST

What Is Cowardice?


The Boston bombers were misguided, misled and loathsome - but were they 'cowards'?

Imagine for a moment you're sitting at your kitchen table making bombs. Knowing that should you sweat too much, or make a sudden move, you will be terribly maimed or killed. Then, later, weaving through the happy crowd: seeing the faces of smiling children. Knowing that if you succeed in your terrible mission, your name will be cursed by millions; and when you are eventually killed (the brothers Tsarnaev may not have been suicide bombers exactly, but they must have known their chances of survival were slim), only then will you discover if the holy men were right about the next life.

Now imagine you are sitting in a reinforced bunker at a secret Virginia location. Someone feeds you a set of co-ordinates which you punch into your laptop. You press the 'send' button, in much the same way you send an email: the drone is launched. In a few minutes, people - hopefully some Mullah, some Taliban jeep, some US citizen deemed beyond the pail - will die. Knowing that if there is 'collateral damage' - wedding parties incinerated, children killed or mangled - you have the full legal, political and military backing of the world's most powerful state.

Who is the coward? Is it the deluded young man from an immigrant background who makes the decision to commit mayhem to help some spurious 'cause', who lobs bombs at pursuing SWAT teams and shoots from his hidey-hole, a dry-docked boat? Or is it the technology graduate, with his home in the suburbs and his federal pension, whose greatest risk is the long drive home?

This is not an article about the rights and wrongs of drones (though it might be worth remembering that for every target, 49 innocents die), but about cowardice and our cowardly fear of being so labelled. Each of us likes to imagine we're a hero, but probably deep down suspects we may be a coward. All of us have the capacity for both; has been both. I know I have. We like to think that had we been living in World War II France, we'd have joined the Resistance; but what if by so doing our own children had been targeted by the occupiers?

In Hemingway's book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the hero, Robert Jordan, fights in the Spanish Civil War. Although his motives seem clear, he is partially motivated by his father's suicide, which he sees as an act of cowardice; deep down he wonders if he too might be a coward, and this (spoiler alert) drives him on to his 'heroic' destiny.

I am not attempting to draw any parallel between those who fought fascism and those who, in the name of fascism, plant bombs amongst happy crowds. Yet I would argue that the desire to be brave, or at least to be considered brave, is one of the most powerful traits of men, in particular.

It could be that the brothers Tsarnaev believed that to do nothing about what they saw as continued injustices against Muslims, and Chechnya, was a cowardly stance, one they couldn't live with. The irony being that in perpetrating such monstrous horror because they were afraid of how they might be viewed by those they respected, they became cowards. The insult is thrown at them again and again, from President Obama down, as if to be a coward is the worst thing imaginable.

It might be better to remember the words of the Tsarnaev's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who in that brilliant, raging, brave interview last week, dismissed his nephews as "losers". Except, as I noted in my previous blog ("The eighties ended today", 17/04/13), the term 'loser' is also problematic. Imbecilic, fantasist, gullible cretins, yes: but cowards?

Mark Piggott's novel about terrorism, "Out of Office", is published by Legend Press