April 23, 2007
This is perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the Virginia Tech massacre I've read thus far (my bold).
Police are still searching for a motive. Cho, the 23-year-old English major who was described as reclusive and extremely shy, left behind a package of videos and letters railing against privilege and wealth, but did not say how he chose his victims...
Those victims apparently did not fight back against Cho's ambush. Massello said he did not recall any injuries suggesting a struggle. Many victims had defensive wounds, indicating they tried to shield themselves from Cho's gunfire, he said.
Massello said Cho hit many of his victims several times.
The media's portrayal of the Virginia Tech massacre has been abysmal and highly inaccurate during the course of the past week. Because of their well-documented shortcomings, I've wanted to avoided commenting on certain aspects of the events of April 16 in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech, where Cho Seung-Hui shot to death 30 of his victims, and wounded 29 more.
During this time period, primarily local media accounts have started to create a patchwork of stories that are helping us piece together an image of how individual students reacted during this tragedy, one that has disturbed several people I've spoken with, both online and in person.
No one could have easily predicted that a student such as Cho would have gone on a murderous rampage, and no one knows how they would respond to an event such as this unless they're faced with a similar situation themselves.
It is because of this that I was concerned when I read John Derbyshire's NRO Blog entry The Spirit of Self Defense, posted just one day after the massacre, when so few facts were known.
As NRO's designated chickenhawk, let me be the one to ask: Where was the spirit of self-defense here? Setting aside the ludicrous campus ban on licensed conceals, why didn't anyone rush the guy? It's not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness' sake—one of them reportedly a .22. At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren't very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can't hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren't bad. Yes, yes, I know it's easy to say these things: but didn't the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything? As the cliche goes—and like most cliches. It's true—none of us knows what he'd do in a dire situation like that. I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I'd at least take a run at the guy.
I think we can all agree that people react to high stress unexpected situations differently, and that how we response is influenced by our previous training and experiences. I don't think it is reasonable to expect that anyone in the situation at Norris Hall would have any previous training or experience to handle the situation of a heavily-armed student shooting up a classroom building, though oddly enough, there was a student, Regina Rohde, enrolled at Virgina Tech that was not at Norris Hall who survived the Columbine High School massacre. Even that experience would not have prepared anyone to "take a run at the guy" as Derbyshire suggested. Something else in a person's background or make-up would have to make them act in such a counterintuitive way as to attempt to attack someone with a firearm. I'll note that counterintuitive is not necessarily the same as wrong.
Arguably, it should make us re-examine the basic, emotional "fight or flight" response. Wikipedia describes the reaction to acute stress thusly:
The fight-or-flight response, also called the acute stress response, was first described by Walter Cannon in 1927. His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing. This response was later recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.
About.com provides a more useful definition:
This is the body’s response to perceived threat or danger. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work.
While the massacre itself was shocking enough, the anecdotal evidence pieced together showing that many students (rightly) fled, and that at least some of those who couldn't escape simply let themselves be shot (including at least one student who curled into a ball and allowed Cho to shoot him). The corner's comments shows that he found no evidence suggesting wounds consistent with someone attempting to defend themselves when their lives were in mortal jeopardy. This is shocking in its own right.
Obviously, many of the 59 students, faculty and staff shot by Cho had a very limited chance to react, and there were students in those classrooms who were not shot at all only as a matter of chance. Why is it, though, that when the fight or flight response engaged as it undoubtedly was in Norris Hall, that it appears not a single soul did as Derbyshire asked, "take a run at the guy"?
This isn't a question of bravery by any measure, and I don't want anyone to misconstrue it as such. I am honestly curious as to why the "fight" part of the "fight or flight" response apparently never kicked in to any one of the students, faculty, and staff members who could not escape.
When a man is in the process of gunning down your classmates in a ruthless manner and obviously has the same intention of doing the same to you, you are presented with a very short list of options:
- do nothing or attempt to hide (a passive response)
- attempt to block the gunman from entering the classroom (an active response)
- attempt to attack the gunman, if only to save your own life (an active response) want to take on of the above options, but succumb to shock (a blocked response)
That is far from being any sort of a clinical response and may not be accurate. It is simply a layman's understanding of how someone may react in the very crudest terms to a horrible situation.
In this circumstance, the flight response is by far the best option, and for those who were able to escape before Cho started shooting in their classrooms, it paid off. But I'm not concerned with the actions of those who were able to escape, but with the actions of those who were unable to escape. What of those who were left?
While we do know that some students were successful in barricading doors and prevented Cho from entering (and that one professor and at least one student died attempting to barricade doors). Once Cho was able to enter classrooms, however, not a single person attempted to attack him according to the coroner, even though that might have been their best option for survival. I speak of this not to condemn, but only in an effort to understand why.
Mark Steyn made an admirable attempt to understand why in A Culture of Passivity. I'm not sure I agree with it, but the following bears reflecting upon:
it’s deeply damaging to portray fit fully formed adults as children who need to be protected. We should be raising them to understand that there will be moments in life when you need to protect yourself — and, in a “horrible” world, there may come moments when you have to choose between protecting yourself or others. It is a poor reflection on us that, in those first critical seconds where one has to make a decision, only an elderly Holocaust survivor, Professor Librescu, understood instinctively the obligation to act.
At the time Steyn wrote his article, not all of the facts were known. We now know that another student died trying to prevent Cho from entering his classroom and was gunned down, just as we know that several other students kept pressing against the door, even as Cho fired through. These brave men all saved lives attempting to preventing a wolf from entering among the sheep. These men are what you would recognize from Bill Whittle's seminal essay Tribes as sheepdogs. Whittle borrowed this description from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's seminar The Bulletproof Mind as Whittle was writing about the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Whittle cited Grossman as stating:
One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me: "Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident."
This is true. Remember, the murder rate is six per 100,000 per year, and the aggravated assault rate is four per 1,000 per year. What this means is that the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another.
Some estimates say that two million Americans are victims of violent crimes every year, a tragic, staggering number, perhaps an all-time record rate of violent crime. But there are almost 300 million total Americans, which means that the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year. Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million.
Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.
I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin's egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators.
"Then there are the wolves," the old war veteran said, "and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy." Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.
"Then there are sheepdogs," he went on, "and I'm a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf." Or, as a sign in one California law enforcement agency put it, "We intimidate those who intimidate others."
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.
Let me expand on this old soldier's excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids' schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid's school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep's only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.
The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog that intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.
Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, "Baa." Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog. As Kipling said in his poem about "Tommy" the British soldier:
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that,
an' "Tommy, fall be'ind,"
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir,"
when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys,
there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir,"
when there's trouble in the wind.
Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed right along with the young ones.
Whittle continues on his own:
Here is the Grey philosophy I try to live by:
Sometimes, Bad Things Happen. Some things are beyond my control, beyond the control of the smartest and best people we have, even beyond the awesome, subtle and unlimited control of the simpering, sub-human village idiot from Texas.
Hurricanes come. They have come for all of human history, and more are coming. Barbarians also come to steal or destroy what they cannot make themselves, and they, like human tempests, have swept a path of destruction through civilization since before history was written on clay tablets on the banks of the Euphrates.
I am not a wolf. I have never harmed a person in my life. But I am not a sheep, either. I know these forces are out there, and wishing it were not so will not only not make them go away – it will rob me of my chance to kick their ass when they show up.
It takes courage to fight oncoming storms. Courage.
Courage isn’t free. It is taught, taught by certain tribes who have been around enough and seen enough incoming storms to know what one looks like.
Tribes is an excellent essay, though perhaps imperfect to apply to the students, faculty and staff trapped inside Norris Hall last Monday. That said, I am forced to wonder why not one of those 59 people shot, nor those who were not shot, did not make an attempt to defend at least themselves, if not others. The "extreme provocation" that Grossman noted can make even sheep attack was certainly present in Norris Hall a week ago today, and yet, not one apparently acted upon it.
Have we become as a culture so adverse to the idea of conflict that we will willing surrender our lives and the lives of others to avoid fighting back?
I am trapped, and think perhaps, that we all are.
Have we become so enamored with the idea of conflict avoidance and conflict resolution at all costs, that we have forgotten that at some points, conflict is the only correct response? Do we not need to teach courage, or at least self-preservation, as well?
I can offer no answers. I don't even know if I'm asking the right questions.
I do think, however, that as a society, somebody should find the right questions to ask, and do all we can to get those answers.
If not, we give our futures to the wolves to decide.