The Virginia Tech massacre has brought out the usual bunch of wackos looking to blame it on their favorite social ill, from video games to the teaching of evolution to Teh Gay. (Links via Kip) I haven’t read of anybody blaming the Jews yet, but you know that’s coming.
In my mind, the most reprehensible response is from those who are calling Virginia Tech students cowards. John Derbyshire seems to have started it:
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…And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren’t bad.
Where to start?
- In order to count the shots, you have to know how many shots the gun holds—could be six, could be sixteen.
- If the shooter has enough spare magazines, he can reload the gun before he’s used all the ammo in it. In other words, instead of being forced to reload when the gun runs out, he can reload when it’s safe to do so, when no one can jump him.
- Handguns are accurate enough at close range for effective personal combat, which is why police officers have handguns.
- A .22 pistol may not do much damage, but the killer also had a 9mm handgun, and that will do plenty of damage.
- Even if the first shot doesn’t kill you, there’s a good chance it will slow you down enough for a killing shot.
- Several victims were shot in the head, meaning either that the shooter was accurate or that he shot people in the head after a wounding shot.
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.
But were they “going to die anyway”? For most of the hundreds of people in Norris Hall that morning, the answer was no. They were spread out over 70,000 feet of floor space, and the shooter didn’t have nearly enough time to get to all of them. Running, hiding, and generally staying away from the shooting were all good tactics.
The comparison to Flight 93 is instructive, because there are many differences between that situation and the shooting at Virginia Tech:
- The bad guys on Flight 93 did not have guns.
- The passengers on Flight 93 had time to think about their situation, discuss tactics, make preparations, and attack only when they were ready. People at Virginia Tech didn’t know anything was wrong until they were shot at, and it was all over in a few minutes.
- As soon as they knew what the terrorists were planning to do, the people on Flight 93 realized that personal escape was not an option. They had to fight together. The students and staff of Virginia Tech did not.
In general, people are more likely to behave heroically if they think it will make a big difference, which depends on several factors:
- How well they understand what’s happening.
- How clear it is what needs to be done.
- The chances that it will work.
- The need for personal action.
All these things take time to figure out, especially the first two. Not coincidentally, the first two things are also the focus of much of the training for people expected to respond to emergencies.
Suppose you’re on a subway platform and there’s a small child who has fallen onto the tracks. It’s pretty easy to understand the situation: The small child can’t climb out, there’s deadly voltage running real close, and if a train comes the child will be killed. But it’s not hard to imagine that a visitor from a country too poor to have subways (or American action movies) might not grasp the danger.
It’s a little less obvious what to do or if it will work. Do you lean over the edge and try to get the child to come over and grab your hand? Or do you jump down there with the child? If so, how do you avoid the high voltage? Can you climb back out, or do you need to run down the track to a better location? Do you have time for your plan? The less you know about subways, the longer it will take you to figure these things out.
The last factor on the list is the most insidious. If it’s just you and the child, you’ll almost certainly make a rescue attempt if you can figure out what to do before it’s too late. If there are a hundred other people on the subway platform, there’s a very good chance that you’ll all stand around wondering “isn’t anybody going to do something?”
At a previous employer, someone robbed the cashier’s office at gunpoint. After it was over, everyone waited for the police to get there…for 45 minutes…until they realized that everyone thought someone else had called the police. It’s a good thing they weren’t waiting for paramedics. (For this reason, I always call 911, even if there are twenty other people at the scene.)
Many people have criticized John Derbyshire for daring to question the courage of the victims of the massacre, and they have a good point, but he also deserves criticism for his poor understanding of how people make decisions in a crisis. If the people at Virginia Tech didn’t behave heroically, it’s because they were confused, didn’t have a plan, and expected someone else to have a better plan.
Nathanael Blake took it one step further:
College classrooms have scads of young men who are at their physical peak, and none of them seems to have done anything beyond ducking, running, and holding doors shut. Meanwhile, an old man hurled his body at the shooter to save others.
Something is clearly wrong with the men in our culture. Among the first rules of manliness are fighting bad guys and protecting others: in a word, courage. And not a one of the healthy young fellows in the classrooms seems to have done that.
First of all, maybe some of those people died trying to rush the shooter. We don’t know yet and may never know, but some stories are starting to come out.
Second, maybe the shooter was smart enough to avoid getting rushed. He had a lot more time to plan his attack than anyone had to plan a response.
Third, “holding doors shut” is pretty dangerous when there’s a killer on the other side who can shoot through the door. It’s a lot more dangerous than hiding behind classroom furniture.
Fourth, holding classroom doors closed may not be as bold and daring as rushing the killer, but in point of fact it worked.
Fifth, that “old man” was Dr. Liviu Librescu, and he in fact died while holding the door shut to allow students to escape through the windows.
Which theory sounds better to you? That there’s a problem with all the men in our culture? Or that the victims were overwhelmed by the speed and violence of the attack, and pundits like Derbyshire and Blake are clueless victim-blaming jackasses?
Me, I like the sound of that second theory.