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« Sex Doll. For *Dogs.* | Main | The Economics Of Heroism »
April 18, 2007

Steyn's Controversial Column On Cowardice And VaTech

I think this is unfair and overstated.

We do our children a disservice to raise them to entrust all to officialdom’s security blanket. Geraldo-like “protection” is a delusion: when something goes awry — whether on a September morning flight out of Logan or on a peaceful college campus — the state won’t be there to protect you. You’ll be the fellow on the scene who has to make the decision. As my distinguished compatriot Kathy Shaidle says:
When we say “we don’t know what we’d do under the same circumstances”, we make cowardice the default position.

I’d prefer to say that the default position is a terrible enervating passivity. Murderous misfit loners are mercifully rare. But this awful corrosive passivity is far more pervasive, and, unlike the psycho killer, is an existential threat to a functioning society.

First of all, we don't know what we'd do under the circumstances. The first reaction to gunshots fired at one's head is likely to be simple shock and motionlessness. A second or two after the surprise passes, the unthinking instict is likely to be to drop to the floor, seek cover behind a desk, or simply run.

Now, after those three to five seconds of shock and hardwired instinct pass, assuming you're still alive and not incapacitated by a gunshot wound, would come the opportunity to actually begin making decisions -- possibly heroic ones. And possibly nonheroic ones.

I think Kevin Costner's character in Bull Durham spoke to this: "Of course baseball's hard. Baseball's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it."

And so it is with heroism. Heroism is hard. And it's supposed to be hard. If it weren't, everyone would be heroic, and they're hardly be any reason to praise the passengers who fought back on Flight 93.

It's one thing to postulate how one would hope one would act were one faced with such a situation. It's another thing to be entirely certain about it and suggest a heroic lack of regard for one's life is the "default position." It's not the default position -- if it were, this would be a different sort of world.

It's probably true that some people did have some opportunity to attack the psychopathic gunman. They may have been behind him at one point as he was stalking down the halls; they may have been in a group who could, at diminished risk (but by no means insiginificant risk) have bull-rushed him all at once, taking him down with only a few casualties.

But we don't know that. And coordinated action is pretty impossible when bullets are flying right at you.

I think a lot of students just hunkered down until he passed. Once he passed, they might have grabbed an improvised club and went looking for him. But 1) they probably hunkered down until long after he was gone, erring on the side of caution, and thus 2) would find tracking him down somewhat difficult.

And what if a single student armed only with a metal pen he'd hoped to use as a crappy dagger blundered into him at shooting range, without the element of surprise and without the advantage of being behind him? Well, that student would be dead, most likely. He'd have died courageously, but ultimately without accomplishing much. This psycho had a hell of an advatage -- a pair of guns -- and someone hoping to take him down would need something to have a fair chance of overcoming that advantage. Numbers. Surprised. Something.

Otherwise they'd just be more targets.

There's a difference between someone willing to risk his life, and someone willing to give his life, knowing he'll almost certainly die. Both are heroes, but the the latter is the more exalted and more rare sort. I don't know for a fact that any of the students here had a genuine opportunity to merely risk his life to bring Cho down. Many may have had a chance to give their lives in a almost-certainly-suicidal one-man face-to-face charge on a well-armed man; but we hardly expect most people to behave in that manner.

If that were the "default position," we wouldn't even have invented the world "hero" in the first place.

I understand that, with any social pressure, there's a good reason to push for the better. Denigrating cowardice, or at least denigrating the lack of heroism, will tend to make people more likely to act heroically, knowing they will be taken to task for failure to act as well as they possibly can.

But this also seems to suggest that "we" -- me, Steyn, the commenters here -- are actually already the heroic sort who know for a fact we'd bull-rush a man firing on us with two guns. We're heroes, this line of argument seems to me to say, who just haven't had our chance to act heroically.

Which also seems to me to cheapen the heroism of heroes who have actually proven their hero credentials by actually acting heroically. It's almost like saying "What's the big deal with those soldiers in Iraq? Damn, I'd be doin' the same thing!"

Well, no. Heroism is defined by actions, not intentions or desires. And if cheapens true heroism to spout off as we are all just chomping at the bit for our moment of courage under fire.

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posted by Ace at 03:26 PM

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