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Courage or Cowardice

Courage or Cowardice

What makes the 9/11 hijackers terrorists and us heroes?


Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Bill Maher, on his show, “Politically Incorrect,” uttered these words:

“We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly.”

Maher defended himself later, saying that he had not intended in any way to slight the American servicemen. Truth be told, he had been a longstanding supporter for the American military. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before several companies, including FedEx and Sears Roebuck, pulled their advertisements from the show, costing the show more than it returned. Inevitably, ABC decided against renewing Maher’s contract for 2002.

To be a martyr, you must want to live more than to die.

Emotions and corporate advertising power aside, did any of this answer the question? Here are people who believe strongly in what they are doing, convinced that they are fulfilling the will of the Almighty Allah and willing to sacrifice their lives for this cause. And here are American servicemen also putting their lives on the line for their cause, equally believing in the rightness of the American way that G‑d has blessed. What makes these warriors cowards and these heroes; these terrorists and these martyrs? Is it just a matter of which side they happen to be on, their proximity to their target, how much they’re willing to risk—or is there something more fundamental, a qualitative difference?

The question is not just whether we like Maher or dislike him. The question is without a doubt the most burning one of our era: If we are heroes, Western civilization can and will endure. If we are not, and they are, then there is nothing to prevent us from going the way of every other decadent society throughout history. The barbarian hordes are at the gates of Rome (having already staked out much of Europe) and it’s only a matter of time.

Is it just a matter of which side they happen to be on, their proximity to their target, how much they’re willing to risk—or is there something more fundamental, a qualitative difference?

So to this I would like to present an answer quite simple, but of far-reaching implications: To be a martyr, you must want to live more than to die. There’s nothing heroic in giving away something you do not value. No, Bill, it’s not proximity to your target that makes you a hero, or your imagined proximity to G‑d that makes you a martyr. It’s the value you place on the life that G‑d created, including your own life that you are putting on the line.

“Often the test of courage,” wrote the French playwright, Alfieri, “is not to die, but to live.”

Let’s reach back a bit. Both Arabic and Western civilizations find their roots in a hero named Abraham. In the biographical vignettes presented to us in Genesis, we never see Abraham seeking out martyrdom. If it was demanded of him, he was prepared for that also. But his message was one of life. Life—here, now, his own and that of all other human beings. Abraham’s G‑d was not a distant, one-time Creator who had gone on to bigger things. Abraham’s G‑d was deeply connected to this world; a G‑d of life.

This is perhaps the most significant element to his daring barter with G‑d on behalf of Sodom and Gomorra: Just as he had put his life at risk before man for G‑d, so he now risked himself before G‑d for the sake of man. It was not simply that there is only G‑d in heaven and on earth, but that this one G‑d is the “Judge over all the earth” and therefore, must do justice. That He cares about what is happening with His creatures, and treats each one fairly and with compassion. That life, in other words, is valued by the One that created it.

Abraham’s discovery, then, was as much about humankind as it was about G‑d. Furthermore, for Abraham, the two, monotheism and humanism, were vitally intertwined: His concern for human life was because the One Creator of heaven and earth breathed that life within us and cared for it. And his iconoclastic monotheism was driven by that same belief that G‑d cared about His universe and about the lives He had placed within it, and therefore it was heresy to believe He had abandoned its administration in the hands of demigods. In other words, his monotheism was not out of some philosophical abstraction, but directly related to his conviction that G‑d cares.

As I wrote, neither Islam nor our libertarian Western civilization would be here without that legacy of Abraham. Nevertheless, somehow the message became parsed. Interestingly, the Zohar and other classic midrashim describe an eschatological battle between Abraham’s son, Ishmael (the Arabic world) and his grandson, Esau (Rome, and it’s descendent, Western civilization). To paint the story in very broad strokes, it seems to this small mind writing now that today Ishmael has taken G‑d to the exclusion of humankind, and Esau humankind without need of G‑d.

And yes, today Ishmael and Esau are at war. Which gets very confusing. Look at the irony of Maher, who put so much energy and daring into fighting for human rights, while simultaneously declaring Allah’s warriors to be heroes. The story repeats itself daily as the voices of civil liberties and universal justice blindly defend the ruthless, totalitarian regimes against Israel and openly lend a hand to the contagion of Islamofascism. It’s as though the two extremes seek to balance one another; yet rather than achieving a harmonious blend, cook up an incongruous goulash, a peppermint coated hot falafel.

It’s within that harmonious duet of G‑d and man, the divine and the earthly, transcendence and life, it is there that true heroes arise—those who put their lives on the line because they value the rights and the lives of others…

That is why sterile, liberal humanism is a sitting duck before the chaos and terror that threatens civilization today. Not simply because it has no way to conceive of the threat that it faces, or because it has no immovable base to determine right and wrong, but because, above all, it is an impotent mule to breed heroism. Life, to the humanist, is valuable because humans value it. If that’s not a tautology, what is?

And the crude, regressive corruption of Islam with which we are faced today is by its very nature a force of absolute nihilism. Perhaps even the atheism of Stalin and Mao could not be as cancerous as worship of a G‑d for whom life begins only through death.

The truth is, America, at its roots, is a harmonious blend of both humanist and theist values, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Throughout its history, from its founding fathers until this day, it is built, in the words of Kennedy’s inaugural address, “upon the the belief that our rights do not come from the government, but from G‑d.” Harvard professor Eric Nelson argues convincingly in his latest book, “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish sources and the transformation of European thought,” that not America alone is heir to these values; these are the ideas that gave birth to all that we find most beneficial in Western civilization.

It’s within that harmonious duet of G‑d and man, the divine and the earthly, transcendence and life, it is there that true heroes arise—those who put their lives on the line because they value the rights and the lives of others, as our fathers and grandfathers did when they crossed the Atlantic to fight the world’s mightiest army so that we could live today in a free world. If we all want to be heroes, if we will dare to preserve our precious freedom before the onslaught of those who openly call for its destruction, if we will stand with courage as those previous generation did for us, so that our children as well can thrive in a free world, we need not die doing it. We need only strengthen the foundations upon which those rights are based, the harmony of G‑d and humankind that Abraham, the father of us all, first brought to the world.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Yossi France November 9, 2014

They are heroes I think that american soldiers are heroes they risk their life to defend democracy and to assure to our sons a future; considering the level raised by terrorism I think that any system to fight it is applicable; what happens in those days in Irak, Syria etc.... is self explanatory. Reply

Anonymous November 5, 2011

The Beast...Julie UK I never forget to look up to the Great and Holy One Julie. If I did, I would not be as effective at what I do, in His name. Nor would I be so courageous if He did not have me covered.

Blessings to you! Reply

Morton bodanis Montreal, Quebec/Canada October 23, 2011

Courage or Cowardice Bill Maher spoke out of naiviete and superficiality in that he doesn't know Islam or what really motivated the 9/11 murderers. And though I agree with what Rabbi Freeman writes, it obfuscates the reason for this tragedy.

The World Trade Center destroyers are not courageous or terrorists - they are interpreting the writings in the Koran and following its dictates - to kill infidels and in the process to die for Allah, and then go to their promised rewards in paradise.

The American soldiers are truly heroes, putting their lives on the life to protect their way of life, home and country, whether they do it personally or remotely. Reply

Julie Durham, UK October 17, 2011

The Beast I hope that while you follow "The Beast" in his natural habitat - a very courageous thing to do, I think - please don't forget to "Look Up" now and again to the source of True Power. Reply

Anonymous USA October 14, 2011

Milgram Experiments The Milgram exeriments were done in the early 60's. I believe the last such experiment was done in 2007. All results were the same. Because the Constant did not change. Clinical.

In order to understand the true Nature of the Beast, one must go into unchartered territories and observe first hand, the Beast when there are no restrictions, every person a potential victim, and the cruelty of such people to all those they meet. Only then can you get a true picture of what people of this character are about.

If you take a wild Cat, imprison it, and feed it at specific intervals, one could almost assume the Cat to have human qualities and believe the animal to be somewhat tame over extended periods of observation in captivity.

The true Nature of the Beast is best observed in it's natural habitat. Only then over a period of time can you assess the true Nature of it. Not in a Clinical setting.

The Milgram experiments are not relevant to the reasons behind the Holocaust. Reply

Anonymous USA October 7, 2011

Anon Calabasas, CA I can say with great certainty that the downshift in the field of psychology has had devastating affect on this Nation due to relabeling of untreatable conditions. A criminal sociopath has now become Bi-Polar. In fact, sociopaths at the level of human dismemberment are also now Bi-polar. The criminal injustice system earned that label. Some can be treated and retrained. Not the most violent offender. Union guarantees employment of many who are a criminal element and are on the wrong side of the bars. All systems must be overhauled and all Psychologists who are relabeling dangerous offenders, banned from practice. They have done this for so long they can no longer see the forest for the trees. Corruption at the hands of Pharmaceutical Companies and a propensity to drug untreatables along with the victims of them. Killing patients against oath to do no harm. All so very wrong. More are born psychopaths than you realize and trauma is the veil they use to cover affectation. Reply

Anonymous USA October 7, 2011

Julie UK I remember the Milgram Experiments which have been repeated over the years with surprisingly the same results. Since I am a rebel from early childhood and one who questions Authority when needed, I am a leader and not a follower. Many are followers. I see the results of it every day. Different degrees and with horrid results. I unfortunately skipped that article on Chabad about incarceration but I may look it up to read. No one has more direct knowledge of the Holocaust than someone who lived it. I met many over the years who were life long friends. Treblinka, Auschwitz and Bergen Belson. I lost MOST of my family in it and was orphaned before the age of 4. Indirectly, I was a victim of it, but devoted my life to understand why it happened and knew by the age of 10. Still I went deeper into the depth of it to understand who, what when and why. Today I am a noted Criminal Profiler. I have devoted most of my work to Overseas since 2007. Glad we understand, a pleasure for sure. Reply

Anonymous Calabasas, CA October 6, 2011

sociopaths and psychopaths These two words are bandied around like the word "racist," so that they have no meaning any more. There are very few people who are born psychopathic. In the 1980s, when the field of psychology started becoming more female dominated, with the goal of controlling rather than analyzing and rehabilitating the behavior of men, psychopathy was changed from a mental disorder to a behavioral description. In my 6 years as a juvenile hall psychologist, I saw very few were born psychopathic. Many were traumatized as children, and still bear the scars, but they are treatable in a society that seeks to help them, but not in ours, where we seek to comdemn them, enslave them, and support a juvenile justice system that pays thousands of unionized staff to keep them incarcerated, and prevent their rehabilitation. Reply

Julie Durham, UK October 6, 2011

Hi Anonymous Now I am beginning to understand your arguments.

When I said no-one benefits, I wasn't thinking about money, I was thinking of their spiritual welfare. I know there are people who still benefit from stolen wealth but of what value can money be to one with such stain on their soul? Such people must be in the hell of their own ignorance. I recently read an article here on Chabad called "Incarceration as a Modality of Punishment and Rehabilitation - a Torah perspective", which I found very interesting; it has influenced the way in which I have written on this thread as I agree with the ideas on rehabilitation prescribed within it. Torah is new to me.

Of course I don't understand the holocaust! You perhaps have more direct knowledge?

On a slightly different note, what do you think about the "Stamford University prison experiments" and the "Milgram experiments" conducted at Yale university? Wikipedia gives a quick summery. This also influenced my writing. Reply

Anonymous USA October 5, 2011

Julie UK I do not think you misunderstand me personally.I think you do not know the subject matter I speak of. You were never a threat to me, nor I to you.

Again, I disagree with you.

1. Criminals benefit from heinous acts,in both the long and short run. Holocaust

2. You have taken a small segment of the Holocaust and compared it to what I wrote as a racial epitaph placed against the Jews

3. There is no known treatment or cure for a sociopath or a psychopath. They come in all colors/race/religion/social stratum. No rehab works!

4. Read up on what the Swiss Banks continue to hold onto as family members still question the deposits they have on record right from the victims of the holocaust.. It is almost 70 years. Is that short term to you?

It isn't me you don't understand, you don't understand the holocaust or what I wrote about the criminal element. They were the creators of the holocaust. Perverts, irrational, violent, sadistic, promiscuous.

Respectfully, What don't you understand? Reply

Anonymous October 4, 2011

UK Julie Julie you will have to learn more about the subject and incorporate that knowledge into your repertoire.

I believe that you do not know enough about the subject to make a rational argument for or against it. If you read what I have written just on this thread, it may somehow open your eyes to knowledge that you do not possess.

I think I was disrespected when you stated that I said ALL people of ALL nations are criminals, and then pointed out the German youth you know who feels bad about it. Many other incidents too. Not relevant to the subject, so I do not take personal offense to you, and it isn't me personally that you do not understand but the subject matter. Hence you are stuck in a quandry with no ladder to get out of.

Even now, you are comparing the subject matter to Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Interesting that the people who exploited the Jews killing them starving them were indeed the very same element. Psychopaths and Sociopaths. Criminals! Reply

Julie Durham, UK October 4, 2011

To Anonymous I am sorry if I have misunderstood you but I am at a loss to know how I have disrespected you or twisted what you said. My purpose is only to state my point of view which may be different from yours. I am not a threat to you, nor am I your enemy.

I don't understand you it seems.

And no, I am not in a position to release rehabilitated psychopaths onto society, nor unrehabilitated ones either, so you can rest easy my friend. I just think that no human is less than human as your discussion of brain shapes seems to imply. I find it abhorent to think of a human born of human mother to be dehumanised - hence I think of the Holocaust as a failed attempt to annalyse people by their physical and racial characteristics and the survival of the Jewish people as a triumph over such attempts. If you understand what I am saying you will not be offended by such an opinion, surely?

Personally I don't believe anyone benefits from heinous acts, not in the long run anyway. Reply

Anonymous October 3, 2011

Julie UK I do not agree with you. On most of what you said, including but not limited to your intent to disrespect or twist what I said to suit your purpose.

What happens to "young Germans who suffer guilt for atrocities committed during WW1 or WW11" is not relevant to the acts committed against Jews and people of other Nationalities.

I did not say Freud was not respected. I said he died shortly after moving to England and I believe he died about 1938 before the atrocities committed by Germany were fully known.

Whether you wish to forgive sociopaths and psychopaths or hope to rehabilitate them, you are in for a terrible life of frustration and angst.

I can only hope that anyone who believes like you do, forgiving the unforgivable, collectively, will never be in a position to release such a violent individual into Society based on a delusional belief they can be rehabilitated. Blood of innocence is on such hands. Reply

Julie Durham, UK October 3, 2011

to Annon continued As for Freud, his work is still respected, studied and used to this day.

The most important thing to me is that we do not EVER allow thoughts in our mind (and G_d forbid) act upon the thoughts, that some humans are less human than other humans, even if they are dangeous, insane and have no regard for others. We teach by example that they are wrong to regard us as less, we do not react by making them spiritually less than us. That would only reinforce their twisted viewpoint.
I believe in laws but prefer the idea of prison as a place of rebirth not punishment and worse still execution. I believe in education for all and equal chances for all peoples. I believe in hope and faith and all that comes from it, not despair and fear, dehumanisation and lables. Shalom Reply

Julie Durham, UK October 3, 2011

To anonymous I did not say that there is no such thing as psychopaths, sociopaths, paeodophiles, serial killers or rapists (someone very close to me was raped - it's more common than you think) but is it nature or nurture which brings it about? The crime is not the person. The person is not evil, my point is it is the deed which is the crime, the deed which brings about the evil. if the perpetrators of crime confess and are contrite does Hashem not forgive them?
Also your statement - "Not ALL GERMANS were Nazis but the ones who benefit from those heinous acts against the innocent, even if they did not personally put a gun to their heads, were forever caste as a criminal element. They were a criminal element but perhaps not as criminal as SS. There are degrees to affectation." , I know that many young Germans who did not benefit from the heinous acts suffer guilt through racial association. So what do you mean? Perhaps it is not clear to me. Reply

Anonymous USA October 2, 2011

Criminal elements What you may find difficult to believe or understand is a fact of life. There are criminal elements within every race or Nation. The rest is your misinterpretation of what I stated.

All of the writings of Sigmeund Freud were prior to the Holocaust. Freud moved to the UK and died not long after.

Because of European/Russian Pograms, many a person was forced to commit criminal acts just to survive. They are not a criminal element and with an end to pograms and stable employment, they no longer commit criminal acts. I am not justifying their behavior but it is understandable. No one is obliged to obey any Law they find morally repugnant. By reason they are obliged to survive by any means necessary.

Not all people of any race or Nation are a criminal element.

I specifically refer to sociopaths and psychopaths as criminal. People who murder, rape and abuse others. You think a Serial Killer, pedophile or rapist is not a criminal? That statement lacks rationale. I do not agree Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 28, 2011

criminal elements I find it difficult to think of a person as a criminal element, criminals have their own rationalisations however weird their reasoning may be to you or me. Certain actions commited by people have very bad results for others and it seems to me that this is how evil or crime can be identified. Altering a person's reasoning however, is difficult, however much pain they are causing they don't seem to see it, as if those affected are not whole and real in their mind. It is perhaps Frued's "Id" out of control, rationalised by the Ego and not controled by the Superego (society, law, religion, morality, education etc). If one considers a group or nation of people to be a "criminal element", one may be in danger of joining the SS!!!! That was after all their philosophy from what I have gleaned from the cinama and TV. The post war Germans I have met have been very nice people.
Perhaps we all have the "criminal element " within us just waiting for the circumstances which will bring it out? Reply

Anonymous September 20, 2011

What is courage? Well put Julie. However, if it acts like a criminal, with a strange sense of entitlement, irrational thoughts and behaviors, a willingness to kill or rob others, then it is a criminal. Regardless of race, Nationality or religion.

All Nations have it, and all Nations are responsible for the acts of their criminal element.

Not all German were Nazis but the ones who benefit from those heinous acts against the innocent, even if they did not personally put a gun to their heads, were forever caste as a criminal element. They were a criminal element but perhaps not as criminal as SS. There are degrees to affectation.

Not all Muslim are terrorists, either. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 18, 2011

what is courage? The hardest thing to do is not to act on fear. Not to act on hatred. Not to act out of predjudice. To me courage is having the nerve to meet people one by one and not clump everyone together and judge them as a lump. Even one person cannot be contained within a concept, a nation even less so. Courage must be exercised daily by all or we will be manipulated by the evil forces of greed ,hatred and our delusional concepts of ourselves and others. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous September 18, 2011

How do I know .....Deborah Interesting thoughts, Deborah. Like the Nazi's intermarried closely with their cousins, so it is with the Arab populace in more remote regions of the Middle East.

Autopsy of the criminal mind, the most violent offender, like Serial Killer, mass murderers show frontal lobe brain deformity, but also, the north and south hemisphere of the brain affects their speech, is also deformed.

One could argue that it is the brain of a species not of a human character. Prone to violence with little to no regard for mankind or life.

It is not the religion, but the interpretation of that religion by people who lack reason. Reply

Years later, we look back at the 9/11 terror attacks and ask what we have learned as Jews, as Americans and as people.
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