"If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to slaughter.
If you say, "Behold, we did not know this,"
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?"
-- Proverbs 24: 10-12
I composed this piece in response to Joe's Zimbabwe Changed My Mind: Guns Are A Human Right. (And I must thank Joe for some editing I asked for, but the final result is Nobody's Fault But Mine.) Joe talked about a number of things in his post, but I want to draw on my personal experience in rescue situations and focus on one thing: what makes people act when the chips are down?
Where, in other words, do heroes come from?
It isn't just a rhetorical question - understanding the answer could save somebody's life.
Chester's Zimbabwe and the Kitty Genovese Incident list of five steps in responding to an emergency situation: (1) Noticing (2) Recognizing (interpretation of what you've noticed) (3) Decision (4) Assignment and (5) Implementation applies best to situation that ought to be easy calls. It's good as far as it goes, but it lacks some reality by itself.
In my experience of unexpected critical situations (which thank the gods is scant) scary-cold, vague estimates and options leap right to the forefront of your mind with no prior steps required - and they influence you pervasively.
Example: someone is drowning in heavy surf where I know there's a rip. How heavy is that surf, will I die or will I live? If I die, will it have been worth trying, or is this just stupid? How big is this guy, and how likely is he to panic and take me with him? How badly do I not want to die like that? (Based on a previous close call - badly.) How long have I got if I go to summon other help (factoring in his discouragement when he sees me running away, not to him)? What are the routes and options, what uncertainty is there about success? How long it might take to summon more help, and how long it might then take the help (if any) to arrive?
Often the decision is simple and greatly assisted if you faced the decision and made the right call before. Sometimes it isn't. In the mythology of Spider-Man, heroism can even come down to having faced the decision before - and having totally internalised and transcended the reality that you made the wrong decision. To call that moral growth merely "guilt" would be cheap and wrong.
At every step, including initial orientation ("Where is everybody?") people are also thinking about questions like "What is an adequate reaction, is the relatively safe option really enough or is it just symbolic?" and "Am I doing or have I already done my bit?" Trustworthy answers to jumbled-together questions can be elusive under pressure.
Of course there'd be no problem if nobody was really calling for help... If that rip is bad, and the guy is as big as a whale, and I don't like the odds at all - maybe he's just waving? To someone else, preferably. On an empty beach, near nightfall. Riiiiiight.
Unreality beckons invitingly. Especially under stress.
People get this look on their faces - I can't describe it but it's no problem to recognise That Look™ - and they just won't react appropriately. It's like they jam.
Having seen people in crowds fail in unexpected critical situations again and again, I'd say the one overwhelming requirement is to accept the reality of what's going on.
You can point to the nut with the knife. You can yell "Knife! Get away!" repeatedly at the top of your lungs, drawing unwanted attention to yourself. Victim #1 can be face down in plain sight (albeit only superficially hurt) - and you may still be unable to get people to move beyond some kind of phoney non-reaction.
Not only will people fail to react appropriately but - and this is something I haven't seen discussed - they may actively prevent you from doing so.
The only thing that seems to work is to threaten them, as personally as possible - and preferably in a way they have no immediate physical defence against - so they have to engage their brains. Yelling at them about the law is great for this.
Example: a drugged-up girl charges to the toilets, crashes into/through the door. Self-KOed, she's now vomiting and choking to death inside the toilets but in plain sight. Enormous Obstructive Moron (OM) gets That Look™ and, completely non-reacting to the life and death emergency, he insists on maintaining order and normality. "No going in ladies toilets. No way!" (Blocking the way.)
What worked was not "She'll die!" (which was completely blocked by That Look™ ) but "You will be held responsible, you will be sued, YOU will go to JAIL yes YOU, JAIL, get out of my way or BIG TROUBLE for YOU!!"
Fortunately I knew how to react to the roadblock, as I was once saved in an analogous way myself. A chemist was perfectly ready to let a child blue-lipping on his shop floor (me) die, but not to lose his licence, which he was bluffed into thinking would be the consequence.
Such is the moral splendour of humanity.
Are you reacting to reality in a critical situation? Then it's all up to you, or if you're lucky, it's up to you and the one or two other people who are also reacting to reality.
"Assigning responsibility" (step four) is almost trivial by comparison.
Often, assigning responsibility isn't even a step - it's just knowing who you are.
The vital response is terribly primal - see-and-accept-the-problem --> Bang! Go! Fight/whatever! Anything that stalls the Primal Heroic Response™ or convolutes or confuses it or diverts it into academic mirror mazes is poison for the soul of the hero.
This is so primal, so hard yet un-theoretical, that even a dog can master it. That's why even a dog can be a hero.
Please click. This dog story is full of great, highly discussable illustrations of what I'm talking about.. In particular, look at the boy, "freezing" but also ready to save others - especially his sister.
The line between the hero and the moral failure isn't between you and me, it's between one side and the other of each of our hearts.
And the line can move.
I think this is why Holocaust rescuers typically showed a signal lack of any moral elaboration. The fanciest response researchers generally got out of them was something like "I had to or he would have died."
I warmly recommend Nehama Tec's great book When Light Pierced The Darkness: Christian rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland on what Holocaust rescuers are like - though with some reservations about her conclusions. I take a different line, one with much less emphasis on the luck of having had caring parents etcetera, and more on what you can do by your own choice.
Learn how from heroes: Rick Rescorla and reality.
My perfect example of a human being who had the Primal Heroic Response down pat would be Rick Rescorla, whose consistent pattern of heroism reached its culmination in the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2002.
"He added that the Port Authority was telling him not to evacuate and to order people to stay at their desks.
"What'd you say?" Hill asked.
"I said, 'Piss off, you son of a bitch,' " Rescorla replied. "Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people the fuck out of here.
I have no words for how perfect a hero Rick Rescorla was.
In relation to Zimbabwe - I think it comes down to a tiny number of morally responsible people in touch with reality (as always), and unfortunately in this case there is no effective way to threaten the Enormous Moron (domestic and international political opposition) into compliance. The heroes cannot threaten the Obstructive Moron with the law, because the Obstructive Moron is the law (or "international legitimacy" or "the global test"), and very well aware of it.
I don't think George and Tony would have a prayer of getting the needed cooperation. Which is bad news for Zimbabwe, face down in plain sight and choking on that human piece of vomit, Robert Mugabe.
Sometimes that's how the best estimates you can make add up: badly. Sometimes it's just about guts. But sometimes it's complicated. And sometimes, in really bad cases, it's about triage.
Same deal for Darfur. It's genocide. Can we stop it? No. Wizbang explains why Darfur is not a promising case for a military rescue attempt.
I think Wizbang is right.
Yes, those are horrible things to say. Yes they are concessions to evil. But there's too much evil in the world, and not enough heroes. So evil is going to win some. That's cold. But truth - or your honest best guess - is better than bull.
Heroism is important enough that lots of folks want to own it. I find myself mostly unpersuaded by these attempts.
I don't think this is a left-right ideological thing, though according to my picture an all-consuming grand theory like Marxism is NOT good news.
I think religion is also double-edged. If it can overcome the feeling, so paralysing for a social animal, that you're going to die alone and nobody will ever know or care what you tried to do - great! If "Jesus sees, and no good deed is wasted!" is an automatic part of your mind-set, so that it supports you and you don't have to stop to think about it - fine. But in general I do not think dogma, including religious dogma, is the essence of heroism.
Nor do I fall in with the tenents of science. I don't think it's a gene, or if it is, it's a gene which an exceptional dog can have too.
I think it very faintly bears upon economics: what is the perceived cost to you of a belief, including believing - and responding to - what is happening right in front of your eyes?
The hero must pay the emotional price of accepting that belief before paying any physical price. Sometimes that emotional price can give new meaning to the phrase "sticker shock".
Ultimately I think this is about the nature of consciousness, which is a deep, mysterious thing. I don't think it's the sort of thing that can be rationally "solved" without remainder.