April 23, 2007

Facing Wolves

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.

He wrote:

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. 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.

He continues:

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.

And further:

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.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at April 23, 2007 12:53 PM

Excellent analysis, Bob. I added an excerpt and link to my "VTech+7: Did we learn anything?" roundup.

I especially appreciated the Sheepdogs references. The group site I run, "Old War Dogs," was very nearly named "Old Sheepdogs," owing to the Grossman and Whittle pieces; we decided after extended debate that policemen and firemen are "sheepdogs" but not "war dogs" and titled the site appropriately.

I think it's worth noting again that one person in Norris Hall, Mr. Kevin Granata, was a military veteran who ran toward the shooting in a vain attempt to protect his students. Of course since the VTech administrators in their infinite wisdom had declared the campus "gun free" all that got him was killed. I hope they're proud of themselves

Posted by: Bill Faith at April 23, 2007 02:40 PM

Lesson: If you are going to go, better go attacking than running. The fact that many of the victims had 3 shots in them suggests that others had some time to react. We can't blame them but we can learn from them. We don't know enough yet, but you have to wonder if we are training our young people to be good victims.

Posted by: Marquis de Gallifet at April 23, 2007 04:28 PM

It's an interesting discussion, and one fraught with emotional pitfalls. Why do some people fight back and others don't?

Why did the three passengers rise up to fight Colin Ferguson after shooting up the LIRR commuter train in a move that launched Carolyn Maloney's congressional career in memory of her late husband?

Why did no one rush Cho?

Lack of opportunity? That's a possibility and I've got to believe that some of the survivors are probably wondering whether they could have done more.

Posted by: lawhawk at April 23, 2007 05:18 PM

These are questions that many of us ask, and many of us are afraid will be misinterpreted. I do not have all the facts, but I believe this happened in a relatively short period of time. It was unexpected and happened in a 'safe' zone. Cho was apparently a good shot and had a secondary weapon for protection during reload of his primary. This would allow little oppertunity for a rush. It takes training to rush an firing position when there is no protection from fire. Trained soldiers, prepared for intense battle, froze on the beaches during D-day.

The students were in classrooms. The classrooms offered the students a false sense of protection. The classrooms also offered Cho an element of surprise as no one knew where he was exacdtly or which room he was moving to.

With all that being said, students have the will to fight drilled out of them. We as a society are taught to be pasive and to let others (governtment, police) do the fighting for us. We are a passive-aggresive nation.

Posted by: Mekan at April 23, 2007 05:52 PM

1. If there is nowhere to run and a shooter with an overwhelming supply of ammunition, you have nothing to lose by fighting back.

2. There were two cases where steps were taken against the attacker but they were not direct attacks on him. The first is the case of the old professor. He managed to block entry to the classroom and lost his own life in the process but not a single one of his students lost theirs. He saved the entire class. In the second instance, two boys managed to wedge lab tables against the classroom door barring entry. The killer shot through the door but nobody was injured. The entire class escaped unharmed.

We need to train our kids to react in that situation and fight back when there is no other escape. The attack can begin with thrown objects ... books, lab gear, backpacks, anything to cause the shooter to be unable to take aim while the other converge on the shooter, knock him over and proceed to stomp and kick his face, ribs, and in particular the hand holding the weapon. He isn't going to be pulling any triggers with broken hands and fingers. Even if he does manage to squeeze off a few rounds, they will be unaimed. Wounds will likely be in the feet and legs whereupon a victim can then land hard on their knees on the chest and arms of the shooter.

Seriously, we should teach techniques that don't take a lot of skill. The idea being that yes, some might get hurt or even killed but if you don't act, they could ALL be killed.

Posted by: crosspatch at April 23, 2007 07:01 PM

I am a small man. I take after my mother. And yet it was she, not my father (an infantry Lt. Col.) whole told me how to handle a situation like this; attack, attack, attack, and when you think you're done, attack some more.

We have destroyed our own survival instincts somehow. Europe, from whence most of us are derived, is a prime example. And it IS creeping here.

I know that many ran, and I don't blame them. That no one, cornered and dying, fought, though, is beyond me.

Posted by: Herr Morgenholz at April 23, 2007 08:32 PM

Of course since the VTech administrators in their infinite wisdom had declared the campus "gun free" all that got him was killed. I hope they're proud of themselves.

Again: who the heck ever heard of a college campus that wasn't gun-free? This was all dealt with in another thread; this isn't the time to pile on these guys about that issue. Others, maybe, but not this one. This mock surprise that weapons weren't allowed on campus limits the credibility of other, actual, complaints that could be made.

Posted by: Doc Washboard at April 23, 2007 09:04 PM

I heard Grossman speak once. He has his act together.

Posted by: brando at April 23, 2007 10:25 PM

I find it amazing that the head of the university was proud of the fact that even his police force was gun free. He does not seem to realise that at some stage someone has to be in a position to protect the university population.

Posted by: davod at April 24, 2007 02:47 AM

First, they weren't kids, they were young men and women, same age as those serving in Iraq.

Second, they probably had no training. Even in boot camp a lot of Americans think we tear down and brainwash recruits (I was an RDC so I drilled them), that wasn't true. We tried to instill in them Discipline, Honor, Courage and Commitment by playing on Teamwork with winners AND losers. Schools now don't really do that. Everybody is a winner no matter how hard or little you try. I don't know if that had any effect on our youth but without the bitter taste of defeat, how do you learn to strive harder? Take risks? Learn new ways to win?

Cho seems to have lost his whole life in his mind, tired of being a loser, he wanted others to share his pain.

The U.S. has been leaning towards a "Put your head in the sand" mentality. Terrorists won't quit but congressmen want to. Criminals don't do the time they deserve because it would be too harsh. Motor vehicles kill more than the Iraq war did but they won't hire new traffic police or enact stiffer laws/punishments because it 'Inconviences' too many people. (I was only doing 8 over, why did you pull me over?) It's politically incorrect to repeat exact quotes in the news when it comes to Race related items, even though it's a Quote because it may offend someone else.

The more sensitivity and political correctness go up, the more the U.S. toughness and resolve go down, inversely proportional.

Posted by: Retired Navy at April 24, 2007 05:12 AM

"Why did the three passengers rise up to fight Colin Ferguson after shooting up the LIRR commuter train in a move that launched Carolyn Maloney's congressional career in memory of her late husband?"

Most Americans intenionally try to stay oblivous to what is going on around them, hoping that if anything goes wrong, it will be somebody's elses problems. New Yorkers are different. New Yorkers keep a situational awareness around them, knowing that if they let their guard down, bad things might happen. When an average person is walking down the street, that's all he is doing. When a New Yorker walks down the street, he is keeping 360 degrees of awareness and constantly risk assessing what is going on. Which street should I go down, the dark alley with no people, or the brightly lit one with lots of pedestrians and the occasional police foot patrol? Most people don't have to make that decision every moment of every day of their life, but New Yorkers are different.

"I'm a New Yorker, fear's my life."

Posted by: BohicaTwentyTwo at April 24, 2007 07:40 AM

Enxcellent point Retired Navy. I believe that it all stems from an over-feminization of the American male. When a boy acts like a boy, shove Ritalin down his throat. I also believe this has alot to do with the leftward turn this country has taken recently.

Posted by: Justin at April 24, 2007 08:04 AM

I have surfed the web looking at the various comments on this situation. I find it fascinating to see the ignorance of guns, lack of ability to understand basic personal defense, and the very passive attitude of our society. It likely stems from the fact that our society is very compartmentalized. Maybe even to say that after 50 years of effort we are still segregated. The reason for the analogy is that the average white person, if he stays in his given area of town, is not going to see crime or violence. This markedly reduces the reaction time and anticipation of evil events.

On the other hand, in the black community especially, violence is rampant. If you substract black crime from stats, our crime rate is less than that of Europe. In most cities, blacks do no mingle with whites. I of course am not talking about the 10 to 20% of blacks that have similar employment or housing as their white counterparts, but the vast majority that are out of sight and out of mind of the white culture.

This produces a lingering subculture of violence. That has a potential to enter into the lives of those who are not inclined in that direction and thus are sheep. In this case it was not a black but someone that was psycho and drawn to the culture of violence depected in films and elsewhere to empower him. He then acted out his fantasy as a final suicide wish to what he saw as glory.

So what is the point of this diatride? We think we are in a nonviolent sector of our society, but the spectrum of violence can enter into our lives at any moment. We should prepare ourselves for this and teach our children how to handle it. I received my education in my local church in the 60's and applied the learned techniques when I lived in New Orleans (one of the most dangerous places on earth). I teach my children to expect this violence and be ready for it as it will enter their lives at some point. I tell them they are living in a false world in their schools and home as this is not the way the majority of the world lives.

Nothing could have stopped this man from acting out his fantasy. But the government provided the opportunity for it to be worse than it had to be. Limiting guns to law abiding citizens only invites terror to enter their lives at some point. People leave me alone as they know or suspect that I keep weapons and avoid encounters that might precipitate their use. In the 60's most people had a gun at college. This reduced violence, it did not accelerate it.

In our society we must address the culture of violence in the black community. This would go a long way to helping instead of outlawing video games and restricting guns to the average person.

If a college is gun free, then the administration should be responsible for any act of violence. In this case they should accept the fact they helped to cause the deaths of these young people.

Mental illness needs to be addressed. Currently we ignor it. In the 50's and 60's this man would have been in an institution. But due to the isolation of our thinkers and planners from real life, we have done away with those instruments that protect the average individual.

Finally, cops stink and are vastly over rated. In situaions like this that I have witnessed, they caused as much injury and death to the innocent as the mad man. That they did not do so this time is a miracle. They certainly did nothing to stop him. I don't know what the answer is to this situation other than to take off the blinders and say these people really don't know how to handle security. They are certainly good at roughing up and degrading the innocent as they did at VT.

Posted by: David Caskey at April 24, 2007 09:30 AM

Obviously Cho planned out his attack most carefully over a lengthy period of time. Note that he bought at least one of the guns last month. During this planning I'm sure he came to the realization that those most likely to fight back would be the men in each class. Hence, you quickly enter a classroom and shoot the men first.

It doesn't matter whether you kill them outright or simply disable them. They are put out of commission for the time being. Later, finish them off. Some victims were shot three times.

I've heard it said by some that a wound from a .22 cal. is not so bad. Tell that to the 3,000 pound bulls that .22 cal. shorts killed in the packing house where I used to inspect meat. One bull, one shot. Admittedly, well aimed at the base of the skull by a shooter above and slightly behind the bull. But, still ... It always amazed me that such a tiny pellet could bring down such a powerful animal.

Posted by: jim at April 24, 2007 01:06 PM