Friday, October 22, 2004

What is courage?

cour·age (kûrj, kr-) n. Middle English corage, from Old French, from cuer heart, from Latin cor. The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.
By its nature, courage is something of a dormant virtue. That is, it is generally not visible under ordinary circumstances. Notwithstanding contrary opinion on the Left, courage is not required to "dissent" in America. Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry face no danger, fear, or vicissitude when they mock, degrade, and slander George W. Bush and other conservatives. If they call Bush the demonspawn of Satan and Adolph Hitler, John Ashcroft's wild-eyed, ultra-conservative, Christian thought police will not show up at their mansions, drag them to torture rooms, lop off ears and tongues, and rape their family members before running them all through a wood chipper.

True courage is only revealed in the face of true danger, trials, and tribulations. What liberals call "courage" is a vile sham of the true article. The plain fact is, in 9/10 America, we faced so little real danger that we substituted increasingly mundane challenges and fears as the catalysts of courage. However, 9/11 presented our nation with a real and truly frightening test of our collective ability to face danger with confidence and resolution. For a time, at least, our country remembered what true courage looked like: firefighters and police officers rushing into the World Trade Center, certain that their death was before them, but resolute in their determination to dare every chance to save and preserve the lives of their countrymen inside.

Courage, I believe, is a virtue which is either nurtured or suppressed by the culture in which one is reared. Courage is more likely to be found in a nation which, as a whole, prefers confidence, boldness, and self-determination over acquiescence, timidity, and reliance on others. This is why democracies tend to engender courage in their citizens.

Courage is a virtue which we may not even realize we have until we are tested. I do not scorn the man who, when faced with true danger, finds that it is more than he can bear. However, I mourn a culture that so dilutes and weakens the notion of courage in its people that, when push comes to shove, what was thought to be courage is revealed, in the worst possible circumstances, as cheap fakery. I revile the man who boasts of his courage when he has faced no danger or fear worthy of the virtue. And I laud those who, when faced with the darkest and most hopeless terror, respond with steeled determination and will.

I ruminate on the topic of courage because of this story, which is receiving extensive media coverage:

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Margaret Hassan, the kidnapped director of CARE International in Iraq, wept and pleaded for Britain to act to save her life in a video aired Friday. "Please help me. This might be my last hours," the gaunt Hassan begged, shaking with fear and burying her face in a tissue.....

"Please help me. Please help me," Hassan said, trembling. "This might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr. Blair to take the troops out of Iraq, and not to bring them here to Baghdad. That's why people like Mr. Bigley and myself are being caught. And maybe we will die like Mr. Bigley."

I do not mock this poor woman or condemn her pleas. Given the modus operandi of her Islamic captors, she is likely already dead, or soon will be. She knows that the same fate likely awaits her as awaited Americans Danny Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Jack Armstrong, Jack Hensley, and fellow Briton Kenneth Bigley. The guillotine of the French Revolution was merciful compared to the slow, manual sawing-off of a head with a dull blade, the preferred method of the jihadists. I cannot say that I would respond differently in her place. I've never been placed in that sort of immediate, life-or-grisly-death situation. I hope I never am. What I do say about this situation is that Margaret Hassan has faced a true test of courage, and was not able to face it with self-possession and confidence. Nor did Kenneth Bigley, only a few short weeks ago:

"Here I am again, Mr Blair," Mr Bigley added. "Very, very close to the end of my life, you do not appear to have done anything at all to help me." Mr Bigley said his captors patience was "wearing thin, and they are very very serious people."

In a calm voice, he continued: "I beg you ... British people, more then ever I need your help, more than ever I need your voices, to go out in the street and to demand a better life for the females and the women who are imprisoned in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad."

As Mark Steyn put it in a column which was spiked by The Daily Telegraph:
None of us can know for certain how we would behave in his circumstances, and very few of us will ever face them. But, if I had to choose in advance the very last words I’d utter in this life, “Tony Blair has not done enough for me” would not be high up on the list. First, because it’s the all but official slogan of modern Britain, the dull rote whine of the churlish citizen invited to opine on waiting lists or public transport, and thus unworthy of the uniquely grisly situation in which Mr Bigley found himself. And, secondly, because those words are so at odds with the spirit of a life spent, for the most part, far from these islands. Ken Bigley seems to have found contemporary Britain a dreary, insufficient place and I doubt he cared about who was Prime Minister from one decade to the next.
This from the island which spawned such and women of courage and determination as Wycliffe, Richard the Lionhearted, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Victoria, Churchill, and Thatcher. Steyn hits on the precise reason for such a change: "the dull rote whine of the churlish citizen invited to opine on waiting lists or public transport." True courage is apparently something that is less frequently tested now, across the pond, as well as at home.

Which leads me to an example of courage from the most unlikely of places. We've all heard the one about the shortest book in the world: the book of Italian war heroes. Well, that book needs a new page in my opinion, for Italian baker-turned-security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi. Never heard of him you say? Not surprising. Quattrocchi's kidnapping and demise at the hands of Islamic butchers back in April of 2004 does not fit the pattern that most other such stories followed. In fact, the key portion of his story received only a few words from the BBC:

The Italian hostage killed by kidnappers in Iraq was a defiant "hero" in his final moments, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini says.

The dead man was identified as Fabrizio Quattrocchi, 36, a security guard.

As the gunman's pistol was pointing at him the hostage "tried to take off his hood and shouted: 'now I'll show you how an Italian dies,'" he said.

Fabrizio Quattrocchi was faced with the same danger, the same fear as Margaret Hassan and Kenneth Bigley. He knew that his life was at an end, and likely a gruesome one. But he refused to be mastered by fear and the certain knowledge of imminent death. Quattrocchi responded to this dire situation with total self-possession, supreme confidence, and utter contempt for his murderers. He refused to let the jihadists use his murder as a propaganda tool to stoke terrorist fervor. How interesting that the al-Jazeera network declined to air the footage of his valiant death, while they gleefully play every second of cowed and defeated Western captives. And how interesting that more people are not aware of the Fabrizio Quattrocchis of the world.

Did 9/11 rekindle the embers of America's latent national courage? Or has our safety, our freedom from apparent danger, and our obsession with the banal drained our collective national courage? I certainly hope and pray for the former, and not the latter. The results of this election will prove telling on this question.To those who have doubts about our national courage and whether we can (or should) face the dangers of our times head-on, I suggest you read again the story of Fabrizio Quattrocchi. And I commend you to a certain other Briton, who never, never, never, never gave in:
"One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half." --Sir Winston Churchill