Wednesday, July 22, 2015

DC Metro Stabbing: Cause and Effect vs. Courage

I wrote about this story and its attendant considerations here, but in light of a recent article by R. Douglas Fields purporting to explain why so many able-bodied people abandoned their duties as members of civilization, I thought I would return to the well this one last time.

Predictably, the author sets his and everybody else's default to coward:

"It may be comforting to indulge in speculation about how you would have responded to the deadly attack on Sutherland, but the fact is that it is difficult to know how anyone will react to a sudden threat."

Pre-determining that in a dangerous situation you'll act to save another human being's life isn't an indulgence, nor is it comforting to do so.  It's an acknowledgment of our shared burden as members of society.  Just because it's difficult to know how you'll react, it doesn't mean that you can't react courageously, or that you shouldn't do it, or that you shouldn't prepare yourself to do it.

"The multiple factors and uncertainties mean that there is rarely one correct response to a sudden threat."

This is where we get caught up in minutiae to justify inaction.  Hick's Law notwithstanding, there really is one correct response to the threat that has led me to write two articles: stop the guy stabbing someone else to death.  This response can take many forms, of course, but all of them are correct if you're stopping the killer.

"Bystander apathy is a psychological phenomenon in which witnesses to a person being harmed are less likely to intervene the more people there are present. This is thought to be a consequence of the herding instinct of human beings to do as they see others do. But when many people are present it is a much more complex situation. This leads to confusion. Is the person being attacked a victim or another criminal involved in, say, a gang fight? The Metro riders who saw the assault on Sutherland experienced neither apathy nor confusion, however. They experienced terror."

Your worth as a person is measured, in part, by doing the right thing despite what you see others doing.  The number of people present in the subway car didn't create confusion or even lead to it, unless they were engaged in mass telepathy and were all thinking the same thing.  This was obviously not a gang fight.  Experiencing terror does not excuse you from acting properly.  Courage is determined by how you act despite your terror.  Ask any soldier, firefighter, or cop.

"I cannot know what those witnesses lived through on that train, but I am confident from my knowledge of neuroscience that they did exactly the right thing. Their response was not a matter of bravery or cowardice or apathy—it was a matter of mortal strategy. Engaging the homicidal robber physically could have resulted in mass casualties. From all the situational information those people rapidly assimilated, that was their collective conclusion. So the passengers tried to appease the robber with cash instead and no one else lost their life."

C.S. Lewis must have known R. Douglas Fields, because he described him perfectly in his Abolition of Man: "We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."  The witnesses on that train did not do exactly the right thing: Kevin Joseph Sunderland, were he able, would likely agree.  Neither a scientific explanation of cowardice nor a redefining of the term bravery excuse the shameful inaction of the passengers on that train.  Your mortal strategy needs to be flexible enough to take monsters like Jasper Spires into account.

Spires was one man with one knife.  Against numerous assailants ready, willing, and able to subdue him, he would not have prevailed, and mass casualties need not have been the result.  Appeasing monsters never works in the long term: they'll always come back to eat you.  If not now, later.

"Honed by eons of evolution in a dangerous world of survival of the fittest, the reaction these neural circuits trigger is usually correct; otherwise our species would have gone the way of dinosaurs. This is why rational Monday morning quarterbacking about the passengers’ response on the Metro is misguided. No fault should be leveled against any individuals on that train. They did as their brain and evolution equipped them to do."

Thousands and thousands and thousands of human beings have overcome what their brains and evolution equipped them to do over the course of civilization, from the Vigiles of ancient Rome to the modern United States soldier, from the blue-painted Pict to the grandfather punching out a would-be mugger.  Scientists like R. Douglas Fields would simply distill us into mere products of brain chemistry, despite the overwhelming evidence that we, as thinking people, transcend that every day.  We're not products of cause and effect.  There's more to us than evolution.

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