The school shooter went in. The armed deputy stayed out. President Donald Trump says the deputy was a coward, and that he himself would have pursued the shooter into the Parkland, Florida, high school where 17 people were killed.
But would he have?
Would you have?
Investigators will determine how many armed personnel might have stopped accused gunman Nikolas Cruz on his murderous path on Valentine’s Day. There are reports that other uniformed officers remained behind their cars as Cruz allegedly shot up the school. But the reality is that not every person with a gun — even a police officer or a soldier — has the courage to face mortal danger.
Military and law enforcement leaders share the problem of ensuring that the members of their organizations are not only trained but mentally prepared for situations that require both physical courage and moral clarity. It makes sense to encourage a supply of armed people who are willing to move toward the sound of gunfire while everyone else is running the other way — and who will use force ethically and honorably. Easier said than done.
Recruiting certainly plays a part, but recruiters look at factors like education, criminal history, drug use and aptitude for certain jobs. There is no quick screening mechanism for courage, and not everyone has the raw material to serve honorably. Even police officers and soldiers who have been trained and served years on the job may not ever have faced mortal danger. They can look the part, do the job and even think they are courageous, but when the time comes to move toward danger — the “fight or flight” moment — some do not.
So how do you test for courage? And how do you build it? There is a tendency to think that only courageous people will seek the job of protectors, servants of the community and warfighters for their country. This is more likely to be true when the danger of the job is apparent. A school resource officer — a law enforcement officer who is there to guard a school — is not exactly on the front lines in the war against violent criminals. But even in the case of military personnel, the number for whom direct combat is an obvious part of the job is small.
In times of peace or when only a very small percentage of the military is engaged in combat, it is easy to forget the realities. The Army has experienced this forgetfulness many times. When the military was called up for the first Gulf War, for example, hundreds of soldiers did not show up to deploy. In 2004, a fuel transportation unit refused a mission to deliver fuel because it was too dangerous. The mission was carried out by another unit, with no casualties. Although the members of the 507th Maintenance Unit — which included Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who was briefly taken prisoner in Iraq before she was rescued — did not shirk their duties, their almost complete lack of fighting skills when ambushed in 2003 reinforced the lesson: Peacetime training does not always do a good job of preparing people mentally for combat.
Those entrusted to protect our schoolchildren need to learn basics such as how to handle firearms, yes, but also how to face fear, and that is not straightforward. In general, our society does not produce fighters. We actually discourage it. We tell children not to fight, to seek peaceful resolutions, and when there is danger, to call for help. Most adults who enter the police or the military have never thrown a punch in anger or in someone’s defense. They are sent to boot camp, which often involves drills to overcome fear. For example, soldiers are asked to conquer obstacle courses that involve heights, or to rappel from a tower.
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army supplemented those sorts of drills with a system that trained soldiers in basic hand-to-hand combat, a practice that had waned in peacetime, but also required all soldiers to fight one another regularly, regardless of age, rank or gender. Before this new system was put in place, the Army did not have real hand-to-hand training. Soldiers trained to stab dummies with bayonets and execute hand-to-hand techniques on cooperative opponents. There were no face-to-face, fear-inducing confrontations. People often want the illusion of training but they don’t want to get hit in the face.
Every police, security and school-guard organization charged with protecting children would benefit from re-evaluating the way it is testing and building courage. Make people face danger regularly. Develop hand-to-hand programs. Require recruits to face heights and water obstacles, and fire the ones who do not hold up.
Many Americans view the actions of the armed personnel in Parkland as a disgrace. Not every police station in the country can afford all the resources of the military, but no police station can afford not to test and build courage in the people whose job title requires them to run toward danger — including toward an active shooter — when everyone else is running to safety. That is not a gun-control issue. It’s a fear-control one.
John Spencer is an Army infantryman with almost 25 years of service, including two combat deployments to Iraq. Matt Larsen is a former U.S. Marine and Army Ranger with over 30 years’ specializing in hand-to-hand combat and close-quarters battle training.
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