Friday, September 11, 2009

The Lessons of Flight 93

Eight years ago fanatic Islamists hijacked and crashed four US airliners. Three reached their targets, destroying the World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon. The forth, United Airlines Flight 93, made a hole in the ground in rural Pennsylvania. That airliner was probably targeted at the White House or the Capitol. The reason it never reached its target is instructive.

Flight 93 passengers had the wisdom and the guts to violate both conventional wisdom and government instructions. The official line at the time was that hijacked passengers and crew should go along with their abductors, giving them whatever they wanted. The theory was that the hijackers would release everybody aboard once they got what they wanted. That sort of worked for a while, though it did provide incentive for more hijackings. However what the 9-11 hijackers wanted was death – on a massive scale. They got their wish but the Flight 93 passengers denied them total victory.

Those passengers knew that they would probably die regardless, but it still took courage to stand up in defiance of armed men. It had to be difficult to make the decision to act, then to carry out that action. Fortunately those passengers had that courage. Instead of depending on someone else to protect them or make the decisions, they took responsibility for their own situation. In so doing they earned the gratitude of a nation.

Passengers aboard three other airliners followed instructions with devastating results. As recommended they acted like sheep. They were following a long-running trend in the US of handing over responsibility for action to “authorities.” Everybody is now expected to wait for the police to deal with criminals, for the sky marshal to deal with the hijackers. In fact anyone who takes defensive action on his own is likely to be labeled a vigilante. The label is wrong of course, but those who want to hand everything over to government find it useful whether it fits or not.

While there are times that it may be wise to go along with a criminal, those times are probably the exception. If someone with a gun demands money, it is wise to give it to him. However if the criminal is bent on doing bodily harm there is usually little to lose by resisting. If a rapist attacks a woman, she is usually better off to resist. Most rapists are cowards seeking to create terror in their victims. If that fails they lack the confidence to proceed with their actions. It is true that some rapists want to harm their victims, but they will do that anyway, resistance or no resistance. If the victim waits for police, the crime will have already been committed.

Two high-profile incidents illustrate well the benefits of taking responsibility for one's own safety. Though school shootings are less common than the common perception, they can serve as examples.

In April of 2007 a disgruntled student killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. He also wounded many others. That happened nine years after another student attacked Thurston High School in Oregon. However only two died in the Oregon school. Why the difference? Both perpetrators were acting alone. Both were similarly armed with semi-automatic weapons and lots of ammunition. The difference was the other students in the schools. At Virginia Tech, students cowered and did not fight back allowing the criminal to go from room to room and continue his killing spree. At Thurston High a few students took action, subduing the shooter before he could do more damage.

The heroes of Thurston High violated conventional wisdom and the instructions normally given on how to act in such situations. Yes, they could have been shot in their attempt to subdue the criminal, but they could have been shot anyway. It is better to be shot attempting to defend yourself than while cowering like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Now few of us will ever face a school shooting or airplane hijacking and for that we can be grateful. Sadly, a larger number of women may face a rapist. Even more of us may face a pickpocket or burglar. Should we wait for the police? By then the rape will be over, the wallet gone, or our possessions stolen. This goes contrary to conventional wisdom, but I believe we should defend ourselves, our possessions, and our neighbors in such situations. Yes there is risk in that, but criminals like easy marks. If we deny them those easy marks, many will decide that a life of crime is not profitable.

Most police departments do a pretty good job considering the problems they face. However cops cannot be everywhere and they have no way to know where the criminals will strike next. The criminals know that, they know that there is little chance a cop will be there to stop them so they think they have a good chance of getting away with their crimes. However if most citizens were to defend themselves that would change the odds considerably. The criminals would know that they face a higher risk.

This extends to other areas of life as well. Any time we hand our well-being off to others, we become less human than we should be. We are intended to stand up on our hind legs and be adults. Taking responsibility for earning our own living, providing our own food, clothing, housing and health care makes us fully human. Depending on others moves us toward the status of cattle, to be cared for at the whim of someone else.

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