On “cowardly”

Stephen Witham (pictured) moved into Michael Flaherty’s flat. The relationship quickly soured when Witham assaulted Flaherty’s girlfriend, and stood over people for drugs and money. So Flaherty got some mates together, hit Witham about with baseball bats, hogtied him with ropes and cable ties, wrapped him in a doona, popped him in the boot, and drove him down Mirboo North way for the purpose of executing him in a pine plantation. Before shooting him, he had a chat with Witham and asked him if he had any final requests. Witham asked for a beer, and they each had one from a six pack. Then Flaherty kicked Witham so as to roll him down a hill, and acceded to his request not to be shot in the face, shooting him dead, in the back of the head. Afterwards, he boasted about the killing. It might have gone undetected but for an anonymous tip off to the police. He showed no remorse in his police interview, pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, and was not known to have been violent in the past. According to Justice Kaye, he did later come to realise the enormity of his offending and was genuinely contrite.

According to The Age, in sentencing Flaherty to 21 years, with a minimum of 16, Justice Kaye said Witham had been defenceless and described the cold-blooded execution as “brutal, callous and utterly cowardly”. This judicial pronouncement presents the perfect occasion to ask what I have been wondering for a while now. What on earth people mean when they say that a murder — or any act of violence — was ‘cowardly’? Did his Honour have in mind the failure bravely to shoot Witham in the face? Or to engage in combat on an equal plane, fist to fist perhaps, rather than a man with a gun shooting a hogtied man? Or to duel? Or was it cowardly to resort to violence? Though the last is the most appealing answer, somehow it does not ring true as a likely one.

Justice Betty King said Carl Williams was ‘cowardly’ too. According to The Age:

‘Sentencing him to 35 years’ jail, the judge lambasted Williams as a “cowardly” killer who employed others to do his killings for him.’

That makes a bit more sense I suppose, but it seems to me that it is only a difference of degree between describing a murder ‘in a perfect world’ (as in ‘In a perfect world I wouldn’t have shot him there [in front of his kids]’) an error of thought which her Honour picked up on immediately, firing back at Williams ‘In a perfect world he would not have been killed at all’), and describing a murder as ‘cowardly’. And if Williams had done the business personally, he would be less cowardly, but would his wrongdoing be greater or lesser? Greater, I would have thought. In which case, what’s the point of calling it cowardly?

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One Reply to “On “cowardly””

  1. They simply mean “bad”.

    They mean “don’t you dare be proud about this”, so they use the adjective they think would most offend a tough guy. It’s the equivalent of a teacher’s “if you’re trying to be funny, no-one’s laughing” or a parent’s “no-one is impressed with your antics”.

    They’re trying to get the thug – whose only skill is in being able to hurt other people – to doubt the one thing he thinks he’s good at.

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