Friday, April 20, 2007

Public Address: Ape-like Chest-besting 1

Russell Brown comments here on a piece by Mark Steyn as follows:
"Meanwhile the appalling Mark Steyn writes a commentary on the shootings in which he endorses claims of student cowardice in failing to tackle the killer and - because there has to be a Muslim angle, right? - blathers on about a massacre that took place 28 years ago in Canada. The perpetrator in that case wasn't technically a Muslim, but he was, as Steyn "puts it the son of an Algerian Muslim wife-beater, though you’d never know that from the press coverage." (And, of course, you'd never know from Steyn's column that the killer had lived solely with his French-Canadian mother from the age of seven and even officially changed his Algerian surname.) Can we stop calling Mark Steyn a journalist already?"
Steyn's piece includes a nasty parenthetical remark, duly quoted out of parentheses by Brown, about one of his hobbyhorses. A more controlled/disciplined writer than Steyn wouldn't provide such an opening to his critics/the unsympathetic. But, if you, like Brown, solely react to that nasty parenthetical remark (which, as a true parenthesis, could have been omitted without loss from Steyn's article) then you are a very lazy reader. You took the opportunity that remark represented to not engage with the piece's main lines of thought (which are contentious to say the least! See below.). One bad turn deserves another, perhaps. But it's poorly done nonetheless. As poor as focusing exclusively on the fact that Brown thinks
  1. That 2007-1989=28 (the Montreal Massacre Steyn mentions happened in 1989), and
  2. (If we're talking viciously minimal charity) That a somewhat parallel 28 (sic.) year old episode on a college campus could not possibly be relevant or of interest (Jesus, can't imagine what Brown must think of articles reaching back to the UT Austin case from the '60's...)
Insert "Can we stop calling Brown an x already?" here. Gee, that was easy. And pointless.

And what of the main lines of thought in Steyn's piece? I'll consider just one. What many people see as heroic professorial action, Steyn sees as, in part, just fulfilling an obligation. And what many people see as completely understandable "being frozen in fear", Steyn sees as, in part, failure to fulfil an obligation. That's a fairly alien moral vocabulary to many of us. We all recognize that way of talking and we still appreciate it when, for example, heroes deny that they did anything special, and instead say that what they did was just the right thing to do, which "anyone would do", i.e., because everyone is obligated to do it. Steyn's implicit question: we still appreciate heroes, but do we believe them (which would imply that we accept that we can fail to some degree if we're less than heroic when the time comes)? We sometimes hear the hero, and think they're being too modest.... "No, you're the hero, I'm not. I could never have done that." The hero may look at you strangely if you say that. Compare saying to the parents of a seriously handicapped child: "You guys are heroes, I could never do what you do." They may smile and know that you mean well, but at some point, maybe then, maybe later they'll probably let you have it:

"No, unless you are a really shitty person, if you were put in our position, you'd do all the things we're doing right now. We're not especially strong, or whatever it is. The only difference between us and you, is just that we actually have to do it. We're just normal people, just like you."

Ouch. Worth thinking about.

An important difference between the Virginia and Montreal cases is that the former seems to have been inherently chaotic in a way that the later, sickeningly wasn't. In the Montreal case, a large group of men in particular did have time to know what was happening, organize and regroup, and perhaps do the classic (United 93) group rush to take down the gunmen. And they didn't. In the Virginia case, however, there appears to have been no time for anyone to stiffen his or her spine, hear the call of duty, organize, improve the odds, and act. Most people probably never got beyond "What the....?", being momentarily stunned, or flinching/ducking for cover stage... Probably only ex-Ranger, -Seal, -SAS types (of which there are always a few at big US state schools) would physically have been able to not flinch/react enough in the first few seconds to be able do something useful in the next 10 seconds. It's just too bad that Mr Cho didn't run into one of those guys. The crazed killer in this case got lucky, but the odds were always in his favor.

Anyhow, there's something interesting there.

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