Courage means being the only one who knows that you're actually afraid
- Franklin P Jones (English Engineer)
Recently, there was in these United States another incident where an angry, disturbed young man (and they are almost always men) went to a school and killed several of his classmates and a few teachers who tried to protect their students for good measure.
There have been many words written and said about gun violence. Too many and to too little effect. I've had my say more than once, here, here , and here.
It's not my intention today to talk about gun violence or gun control. Just so that there is no confusion, however, I quote my words from just over five years ago, when another angry, disturbed young man went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 20 children (all under the age of eight) with a gun that his mother legally obtained.
A weekend has now passed between us and the horrific shooting in Newtown, CT. The images of crying, shaken young children will not soon be forgotten. And the thought of little five and six year old, lifeless children with unopened Christmas presents and named stockings forever awaiting a return that will not come, spending the weekend pending crime scene investigations to be completed is too terrible a thought to consider.
Predictably, the discussion has turned to what to do about this.
The point is, sensible people understand that we need to balance the "rights" (and more accurately, the desires) of one individual against the rights of others.
The Republicans are just dead wrong on this.
Yes, we need to take steps to reduce the toxicity of the sewage culture - with its phony machismo, out-sized sense of "respect" that is frankly narcissistic, and plain glorification of violence. Yes, we need parents to be parents. We need to make sure that mentally ill people have the resources and equally, avail themselves of those resources.
But I'm sorry. Pretending that bromides about how "guns don't kill people, people kill people," or clinging to fantasies that these yahoos are somehow keeping an otherwise tyrannical government in check is killing people.
Five years later, and nothing has really changed.
But today, I don't want to talk about guns; I want to talk about courage.
I participate from time to time in an on-line forum called Quora. It's not the typical internet food-fight, but rather, a place where questions are asked and those with some knowledge provide answers. I get questions directed to me about maths, about economics, about life for foreigners in France. All because I am a mathematician, I make economic models, and lived as an American in France.
But I also get the odd question about US politics, and recently, with the shooting in Florida, the US president, Donald Trump, boasted about how, should he have been around the scene, would have "run into the building" to confront the murderer. One supposes that this boast is meant to contrast against the police deputy who hid outside as the gunman roamed the corridors of the school for several minutes, shooting his peers.
On Quora, the question was put to me:
Who believes that Donald Trump would run at a gunman? In my experience, the ones who say 'I would have done this' are always the people who would never do what they say, so why say it?Now, I have no idea if it's actually true that President Trump would have run at the gunman. Honestly, in such a situation, it's hard to say how any of us would react. It's just too bizarre a situation, and how we would or would not behave really would require to be in that position.
Which I hope I am not.
But I tried to answer the question, and doing so made me think.
Would I have the courage? Would it even be courage that was required of me?
First, to answer the question directly, more than sixty million people voted for Donald Trump. Not all of them did so because they thought that Hillary Clinton was an awful candidate who would make a terrible president - some did because they actually think Trump is an effective, credible leader.
So, yes. It seems almost existentially obvious that at least one person believes that Donald Trump would run at a gunman. I suspect that for many, there is virtually no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary that would dispel this belief.
A more difficult, introspective question is, why would President Trump make such a boast? Why does anyone do so?
I cannot speak to your personal experience, but my feeling about people who seem to puff themselves up with such ostentatious displays of courage do so because all of us would like to think that we have more courage than we really do.
We all like to think that, if put in a situation where we can do something to prevent a wrong will act.
I have a 12 year old son, and I've written here many times about his life. Our son is a quiet boy; his likes and dislikes are not the most "main stream." Unsurprisingly, he has been the subject at times of bullying.
I am now 48 years old, but I recall being his age, and I saw bullying around me. It was frequent, and it was not hidden. To be fair, I was not a specific, frequent target of bullies, but I did draw their attention more than once. I remember the experience to this day. Names. Details. Everything.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in the school yards of my youth, one pretty much divided into three camps.
- There was a small group of “alpha” dogs who, in my memory, kept their position at the top by bullying and intimidating the weak.
- There was a small group of kids who, for one reason or another, were the “weak” of the herd, and they took most of the abuse. Perhaps they were perceived to be eccentric. Maybe they did not like sports or wore clothes that were odd.
- The rest of us who were neither the predators or the prey.
Looking back, the vast majority of us were in the middle. We had the numbers. We could have spoken up and stopped the bullying. Any of us could.
We didn’t, for no other reason than fear.
It was understood by most that if you stand up too loudly, the wolf will find you instead of the lamb.
So we kept quiet.
In retrospect, I wish I had been more courageous. I would like to tell my son - to tell myself - if I could go back to being 10 again and change one thing, I would stand beside the weaker. I would raise my voice. I would sit next to the kid who was a "fag" (and at the time, this was a ubiquitous, generic insult) at lunch.
The problem is, I know it’s not true. It’s a false courage. But from time to time, I lie to myself and say I would, even though I know that I wouldn’t.
That is why people like to say they would run towards the gunman.
This is the difference between courage and bravado. Bravado is making claims about what we would have done in a situation. Courage is what we actually did.
And for many of us, there ain't a lot of it to spare.
I suspect that Donald Trump, at least in this respect, is like a lot of us.