Many of us like to imagine that were a Dirty Harry necessary, we'd be steely of mien and jaw, eyeing down the sight of a .44 Magnum, dryly spitting out that most famous of lines. Or the lone sheriff in the American West, riding into town to right wrongs, dispense justice, and reaffirm the American Way, armed only with courage, a six-shooter, and perhaps a hapless sidekick for comedic value. It's a human archetype we've taken as our cultural mythos. We worship at its feet, we immortalize it in movie, script, and song. It's become a national identity, a call for some to pride, and for others, to shame. It's also not quite that simple.
As I write this, it's two and a half weeks after the Parkland shooting, and things are changing swiftly. While we have the usual host of thoughts and prayers, we are also seeing some societal changes happening that previous shootings have not resulted in. There are many issues, many facets, and it will not come as a surprise that I have strong opinions about most of them.
But today I want to talk about the school resource officer who didn't. A tremendous amount of attention is now focused on a sheriff's office school resource officer who was, according to reports, on site during the shooting, with his handgun, and remained outside, taking no action to go into the school or to try to take down the shooter. (It now appears that there may have in fact been multiple officers who remained outside.)
It is still early, there is much conflicting information, and I am certainly not going to postulate on any of the should/shouldn't, would/wouldn't, what the real truth was, because I was not there and I do not know.
But here's one thing I DO know: courage ain't always what we think it is, and none of us, not a single one of us, know how we would react until we are in an extreme situation. We can know how we hope we would act. We can know how we fear we would act. But we cannot know how we will act until it happens. I know this through experience.
(The story I am about to tell is in no way of a magnitude anything like a school shooting, so please do not think I am suggesting it is. It serves merely to illustrate a point, as it has for me since it happened.)
Years ago my mom and I went on a trip to the Big Island. Our very first day, we went on a tour to see the Green Sands Beach, among other attractions. Long story somewhat shorter, while trying to take a picture a bit too enthusiastically, I fell, slicing a chunk of my thumb off, and putting paid to my even getting to the darn beach. (I saw it though; it looked very cool. From a distance. Here is a photo from someone who did not fall.)
I ended the day with a giant gauze dressing on my thumb and instructions to keep it elevated over my heart as much as possible. So our scene is now set: I am 40ish, with a giant muffin thumb held over my head, and my mom is 60ish, with a cane and a hobble from a destroyed knee earned skiing back in the day. Here is a picture of what we did NOT look like:
So when we came out of visiting the City of Refuge, we were a rather unprepossessing pair. As we started walking towards our car, we heard cries of distress. Looking up, we could see that at the far end of the parking lot an elderly couple getting into their car was being assaulted by a younger man.
Here's the thing about that moment: I remember it as though it were frozen in amber. Neither of us said a word to one another, there was no decision-making process, there was no debate, we just sprang into action. And by sprang, I mean I shuffle-lurched along as fast as I could toward the couple while not taking my feet off the pavement, because putting my foot down with any force made my throbbing sausage thumb, waving in the air like a flag, throb harder, with my mom limping along behind me as fast as she could, armed with a cane in one hand and righteous indignation in the other. Sort of like superheroes, if you imagine your superheroes hobbling, middle-aged, and avec various injuries.
(Photographer Martin Beck)
When we got closer, I could see the assailant, who had the elderly man up against the car, and was wrestling for his wallet. The wife was calling for help, and just as I got about 10 feet away, her cries changed to, "Watch out; he has a KNIFE!" Time froze and all I could see was that knife flashing in the sun around the helpless, but struggling, elderly man. I waded in anyway, yelling back towards the facility for someone to help, to call the police, to assist us in some way, my mom right behind me, also yelling at the top of her lungs. (My mother, back in the day, honed her skills yelling at hockey referees. She had enviable lung power and a masterful command of the epithets of the English language.)
Again, no time to stop, reflect, decide. We just kept going. The situation was now 4:1 rather than 2:1. Though young and strong, the assailant reassessed and fled. Mom and I comforted the couple, who were both shaking and nearly falling down at this point. We got them sitting down in the car, and breathing deeply. Time resumed its normal pace.
When I looked back toward the facility, there were a line of about 20 people who had come outside as this was happening. Many able-bodied, younger folk of both genders were standing there, watching. Not a single one of them had taken a single step towards us. Not. One. I will never forget my shock and horror as I realized that every single person there except my mother and I was willing to watch an elderly couple get robbed and very possibly hurt, while doing not one damned thing about it.
Now, I'm sure they were very nice people. I'm equally sure that most of them thought that in a time of need, they would be a Dirty Harry. They were not. They stood there, pole-axed, frozen, cowardly, whatever you want to call it, and did, as my mother so eloquently put it, "Fuck-all nothing."
(You could also call it smart. I don't, but you could. There are many ways of looking at it.)
I don't think of what Mom and I did as being brave. Or if it was, I don't think it was brave by choice. Honestly? What we did might be more accurately described as foolhardy. We were outmatched, out-youthed, out-weaponed, and had no business being anyone's rescuing army. That said, we were also the only ones who were willing.
What I learned in those few moments is that any relevant training aside, when push comes to shove, you simply are who you are. Some run forward, some hang back. You don't know which you are until it happens to you. I'm a small enough person to be relieved that I ran forward, but a smart enough person to also know that in another situation, that could have left me dead.
So I don't know about the guy(s) who didn't go in. I don't know if it was fear, conflicting information, smarts, terror, confusion, or what. But I do know that it's very easy to armchair judge, and I am not going to do that. He and the other responders who didn't go forward into danger to protect those they were charged with protecting have to live with that for the rest of their lives, and that is not going to be a very great way to live. My heart goes out to them as well.
However, there was only one true, complete coward there that day, and that was the jackass killer with the gun.