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Now he knew the truth that is known to all fighters, and hunters, and climbers of cliffs. He knew that even his animal life could only be saved by a considerable readiness to lose it.

G.K. Chesterton – The Ball and the Cross

As we reflect upon the tragedy at Virginia Tech last week, and mourn with the Hokies in response to a senseless act of violence which shattered so many lives, we are naturally treated to the garish spectacle of media hand-wringing and blame-finding. Unlike President Bush, whose speech to a mournful Hokie audience struck just the right note, we must listen to the bleating of media talking heads and pundits. And as these pundits talk about every possible aspect of the horrible events, we should pause to reflect upon the one clear lesson of this and every similar tragedy:

Cowardice Kills.

I am not primarily speaking here of the real heroes of the day, men and women who stood in doorways or classrooms to bar the gunman’s way or offer their lives for their fellows. Their virtue is heroic and courageous, and their sacrifices saved many. They could indeed show well the power of courage and how many lives can be saved by just one person willing to lay their own life down. Truly, they are worthy of better words than mine.

But such heroic courage would not be so needed if our society taught and learned basic everyday courage more effectively. Consider how this last outrage progressed:

A single gunman, armed with two pistols (one 9mm and one .22 cal) and a great quantity of ammunition, moved slowly and methodically through a building, entering classrooms and shooting people one at a time, sometimes taking aim to ensure head shots or otherwise make sure of his “kills”. Over the course of more than 10 but less than 30 minutes, he left a trail of 32 dead and almost that number wounded.

Who were these unfortunate victims? Some, as mentioned above were the very brave who confronted the gunman or stood in his way, delaying him and giving others time to escape. Some were simply unlucky, shot before anyone knew what was happening, or as they fled, or as they reached windows or other exits. But many, many of them were shot as they sought shelter under desks or meekly lying on the floor.

Let us be very clear: their deaths are not their fault nor their responsibility. That lies with the gunman alone. And there, but for the grace of God, go we. Unless we have been under fire, we cannot say with any certainty that we would not have done the same. But we can say, and must say, because lives depend upon it, that what they did was exactly the wrong thing to do. It is what our society, almost unconsciously, teaches us to do. It is what the average civilized person naturally thinks he should do. And it is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Against a rational attacker, such as a soldier of a Western power, or a policeman, or even a common thief, such abject surrender can often work. But against anyone bent on terror or destruction, it is a death warrant. And it is what signed the death warrants of so many that day.

A pistol is not an easy weapon to kill people with. It has poor range, is difficult to aim, and usually produces non-fatal wounds (killing by blood loss rather than immediate injury). All of this is made clear in the FBI’s classic study of the effects of handguns. Against a lone gunman armed with pistols, simply running quickly away is a pretty good strategy. Holding doors shut against the man is also quite effective, since pistols don’t penetrate very well. And, indeed, whenever a door was succesfully held shut against the VT gunman, his shots through the door were relatively ineffective.

Most importantly, whatever time the guman spends hunting down fleeing victims or trying vainly to get through a door is time he isn’t methodically killing more people. If the first few classrooms had consistently barred his way, and if everyone else had fled rather than meekly waiting, the death toll might well have been less.

And if those in a position to do so had fought back, the toll would have been less still. Here I’m not speaking of some super-commando, or even of a dedicated rush by a dozen men (though that would probably have worked well if it could somehow have been agreed to). But, as the guman moved through the building, he doubtless came to doors, corners, stairs, etc. Simply throwing heavy objects at him before running might well have delayed him substantially. Two or three people charging behind a thick table or attacking from multiple directions might have managed to reach him. One brave ROTC student did attempt to reach him, but—alone and unaided—he was killed before he could subdue the gunman.

Are all of these acts riskier than simply running away? Almost certainly. Are they riskier than cowering beneath desks and tables? Not at all.

Why then is courageous behavior not natural? While they may not win awards for design, human beings are definitely predators. So why no killer instinct? Because human beings aren’t governed by simple instinct. We learn behaviors. While it doesn’t always seem that way, kids and teens really do take the lessons they learn to heart. When we, as a society, socialize kids from early years to be passive or to respond to aggression in passive ways, that’s what we’ll get 9 times out of 10.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that in our Brave New World of the 21st Century, such a response is badly out of place. In a world where individuals have nearly unprecedented power to alter the world through technology, each individual must accept responsibility for defending his society. We can’t afford a culture of passivism or a society of sheep. We don’t have to embrace violence, but we do have to embrace courage.

At Virginia Tech, those who showed heroic courage were a shining few. They often paid the ultimate price. More, but not nearly all, showed natural courage, and usually gained their lives. But many, too many, reacted as they had been taught, passively. And, many times, they too paid the ulitmate price.

If we want to survive and flourish as a free society in the years to come, courage and action must be impressed into every citizen. Heroism will always remain rare, but we must produce the most fertile ground possible for it. And we must all do our part with courage, so that our heroes don’t have to take up our slack. Relying upon others to be courageous won’t work, not when you can’t afford the minutes or hours it will take them to respond.

Because the lone madmen aren’t going away, and as time goes on, their weapons will only get worse.