Saturday, February 16, 2008

Campus Gunmen and the Need for Courage

If an armed man breaks into a classroom intent on killing as many people as he can, what response should we expect from the teacher and the students?

At Virginia Tech and at NIU, the response of both teachers and students was to run away, out of fear of being killed, while calling for aid from armed law enforcement officers.

Is there any moral justification for expecting something more? Should we expect that some of the teachers and students would charge towards the gunman to stop his shooting, and thus risking their lives to save the lives of others?

Or have we decided that unarmed citizens with no special training in law enforcement or military service are not morally obligated to risk their lives in stopping a gunman?

The moral virtue of courage is displayed when people risk their lives for the sake of some cause worth dying for--like defending one's country or defending innocent people against attack. Should we expect college teachers and students to display courage when they face a gunman in their classroom? Or have we decided that this is an unreasonable expectation for unarmed citizens?

These are difficult questions. I must admit that I personally don't know how I would react under these circumstances. If I had been lecturing on the auditorium stage of NIU's Cole Hall 101 on Thursday afternoon, and Steven Kazmierczak burst onto the stage with his weapons readied for action, I hope that I would have had the courage to charge towards him to stop his attack. But I cannot honestly be sure that I could have done that. I am sure that I would have felt the same fear of dying that everyone felt in that classroom, and that fear of dying might have so overcame me that I would have been a coward. But if I had acted in a cowardly way, I would have felt ashamed of myself.

Or, again, have we decided that unarmed citizens are not morally required to show courage in risking death to stop a gunman to save the lives of others?

12 comments:

RBH said...

You ask

Or, again, have we decided that unarmed citizens are not morally required to show courage in risking death to stop a gunman to save the lives of others?

In the situation as it has been described in the press, it's not a question of moral duty and courage. It's mainly a question of realism: Under what circumstances can an unarmed and untrained person charging a man armed with a Glock 9mm and a shotgun expect to accomplish anything? Life is not a movie and 9mm rounds are not blanks, nor are shotgun loads. You say

... I hope that I would have had the courage to charge towards him to stop his attack.

You wouldn't have had a prayer of stopping it -- charging him would have been a futile (and fatal) gesture only. The image of a brave college professor untrained in unarmed combat quelling a shooter with two semi-automatic weapons is pure fantasy.

Now, had a significant number of unarmed people charged the shooter simultaneously from different directions, perhaps during the pauses when he was reloading the shotgun that was his primary weapon, it's possible that they could have stopped him with fewer fatalities. But to expect that sort of spontaneous simultaneous reaction to occur quickly enough from untrained people is again a fantasy.

Larry Arnhart said...

There are two doors opening onto opposite ends of the stage in Cole Hall 101. The gunman came through the door to the left of the instructor. The instructor could have run out the door on the right end, run behind the stage, and then come through the other door behind the gunman. This might have taken 30 seconds or so. But it is possible that the instructor could have tackled the gunman from behind.

Andy Schott has reminded me of the one heroic professor at the Virginia Tech shooting. Professor Liviu Librescu guarded the door of his classroom while the gunman was shooting. This allowed his students to escape the classroom through windows. Librescu was killed, because he refused to leave his guarding of the door. This would be an example of the courage that we might properly expect of an unarmed teacher acting to protect his students.

David Gordon said...

Isn't supererogation relevant here?

Larry Arnhart said...

Supererogation?

What about manly honor and courageous spiritedness?

David Gordon said...

Certainly someone who risked his life to stop the shooter would display great courage; but I'm not seeing why the failure to do so is cowardly. "Courageous or cowardly" do not exhaust the alternatives.

Anonymous said...

"But to expect that sort of spontaneous simultaneous reaction to occur quickly enough from untrained people is again a fantasy."

But, is this not Arnhart's point. Have we become citizens that see ourselves simply as the protected not part of the protection? Should we not cultivate in our citizenry a habit of confronting danger with the courage of self-sacrifice? With such a cultivation would it be more likely that individuals in that situation would have acted because they had been cultivated to act? I would have to say, YES.
Again, I don't think we are talking about making every citizen a warrior. We are talking about duty. Your individual, but shared duty as a citizen and as part of the citizenry.

This debate over what a citizen's or citizens' duties are is being debated in communities where the legitimacy of law enforcement has broken down. The "Don't Snitch" movement is exactly what leads to a breakdown in civil society. A breakdown caused by the fact that citizens can no longer count on help of other citizens to bring criminals to justice.

If we loose the courage to confront criminals, how will we have the courage to confront any threat to our life and liberty?

Schott

Anonymous said...

Every teacher asks the same question. We are not trained to react so I do not know how I would. I hope I would protect my students.

Mark

RBH said...

Schott wrote

But, is this not Arnhart's point. Have we become citizens that see ourselves simply as the protected not part of the protection? Should we not cultivate in our citizenry a habit of confronting danger with the courage of self-sacrifice? With such a cultivation would it be more likely that individuals in that situation would have acted because they had been cultivated to act? I would have to say, YES.

Sure, and I know that from direct personal experience -- I'm a veteran (four years in the regulars) and still carry my dogtags nearly 50 years after they were issued in boot camp, and I've been a member of a volunteer fire department/emergency squad for more than 30 years and have risked my life to a greater or lesser degree dozens of times over those decades. I fully support the proposition that if they are able, citizens should intervene in emergencies to the extent that they can do something constructive about the situation rather than exacerbate the problem faced by emergency services.

I'm operating solely on news descriptions of the NIU situation, and, for example, don't know the physical layout of the hall in which the events occurred. I don't know the background and/or training of the instructor -- I don't even know the instructor's gender, size, or age. My general point is that expectations of particular kinds of behaviors must take into account the particular situation. The Virginia Tech instructor who sacrificed his life holding a door closed so his students could evacuate was in a defensive mode. Arnhart's expectation of the NIU instructor required an offensive mode, a higher hurdle for civilians to jump.

In the fire service we train our people to not become part of the problem by taking ill-advised or foolish risks. The same principle applies to civilians.

Anonymous said...

Just a question:
Was your university declared "free of firearms" like many others?. If so, I understand the killer motivation for choosing this place and not other for the massacre. I also understand the reaction of the people.

Laws and norms are for people that obey them. A norm that ban firearms is exactly a law that ban firearms for such people, not for killers. If laws and norms enforce the defense in more tan heroic conditions, then, what is to expect: courage? or suicidal inconscience?

govlov said...

Courage, Dr. Arnhart, does not include running toward a certain death. In the military, we are not trained to die for the sake of dying, rather to react in a way so as to minimize the loss of life. Steven had the advantage of surprise and a large arsenal of weapons. How exactly should we "train our students" to be courageous (a poor choice of word, I might add)? Should we run simulations whereby armed gunmen enter a classroom and open fire, requiring students to rush at him while trying to avoid be shot?

Larry Arnhart said...

govlov,

Are you assuming that running away from a gunman is the best way to minimize the loss of life?

Is it possible that running away actually makes it easier for the gunman? Isn't this what Steve K expected and wanted?

Steve K was in an auditorium without windows. What would have happened if one of the students had turned out the lights? What would have happened if many of the over 100 students in the auditorium had charged towards him? What would have happened if the instructor had run behind the stage and entered the door from behind the gunman and tackled him?

As far as I can tell, no one has asked questions like this, because everyone assumes that unarmed citizens should never challenge a gunman. Shouldn't we at least examine that assumption?

At Virginia Tech, Professor Librescu died while blocking the door to his classroom, so that his students could escape out the windows. Could this be a model of courage for both professors and students?

govlov said...

I don't know what Steven wanted or expected and am not certain how you can. I would suppose that his goal was to inflict the most damage, however, you have no evidence to the contrary that he would have been less successful had someone stormed the stage or turned out the lights.

One day I was late to a large lecture hall I was to teach a class in. I arrived to find all of my students sitting in their chairs in the dark because no one knew how to turn on the lights. Which of these students in Cole Hall even knew where the light switch was? Should we designate a person in each classroom to staff the lights and turn them off should a gunman come in and surprise everyone? What if that person is the first to be shot?

And turning off the lights does not prevent a person from aiming and shooting a gun into a large auditorium. You don't have to be an expert marksman to fire a shotgun at 100 people in one location. Certainly most of the students who died were some of the first to be shot, again because he had the element of surprise.