In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage
It was Memorial Day on Monday, a day for remembering those who gave the last full measure of devotion in service of our country. They are honored dead, for they showed courage, and willingly sacrificed themselves for their people. It is the duty of all men, on due occasion, to die for their nation, but it is the duty of soldiers to seek out such occasions, and to die in our place. And it is for us every Memorial Day to resolve they should not have died in vain.
It has been often said, and truly, that the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live. I wonder then how some of the police of Uvalde, Texas, can live. For surely if there was an occasion to die, and die well, it was last week, when dying children were calling 911 from just behind a door. But they waited instead, and let a Border Patrol Tactical Unit do what they should have done: go into the breach and risk death to kill the gunman and save the children.
The New York Times reports the gunman was in the building for 77 minutes before Border Patrol entered the classroom. The police were in the building for 60 of those minutes. They received numerous 911 calls from students begging for them to come and rescue them. I do not say “begging them to attempt a rescue.” The results were guaranteed. There were at least 19 police officers in the hallway some 50 minutes before the eventual breach; there was one shooter. The little boys in blue could have entered any time and, like Border Patrol an hour later, fired 27 shots to kill the gunman. That is, if they’d been willing to die to save the children of their community.
Parents were willing. Parents were pleading to be given the chance. Social media and reporting showed the thin blue line standing between onlookers and the building, preventing them from attempting their own rescues. The Wall Street Journal reports U.S. Marshals handcuffed a woman who was demanding more cops enter the building, and a woman alleges she saw a man shot with a Taser as he sought to be reunited with his daughter. At least one video shows police pinning a parent to the ground outside the school, and a nearby officer can be seen holding a Taser.
There is a cowardice to following bullshit orders. The order to wait an hour and then let the specialists take care of it, the order to restrain parents, yes, those reflect the smallness and stupidness of the men giving those orders. But the decision to follow those orders, to listen to the gunshots through a wall and yet still hold position, to not say “let’s roll” and go, trusting in numbers and the rectitude of the cause, knowing you risk only a good death, that seems a coward’s decision, too. Take any 19 American men and put them unarmed in the same hall and I say at least ten would elect to rush the shooter anyway. As Shakespeare’s King Henry said, Dishonour not your mothers; now attest/That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
I do not want cops to die. But if you are in harm’s way, by definition you risk harm, and the good police officer is in harm’s way on behalf of his community. If, as it appears to me from a perhaps too quick review of America’s major school shootings, no responding police officer or even school resource officer has ever died trying to take down an untrained teenage killer, then it seems to me that at least in some cases they cannot have tried very hard. Or perhaps we have only gotten very, very lucky and our cops are well-trained. But the hesitation at Parkland, and now Uvalde, makes me wonder.
Now some commentators, amateur and professional, have explained away the failures in Uvalde—whether of rank stupidity or cowardice—as being caused by insufficient support for police. Since the summer of 2020 especially, they suggest, but really for a long time before then, cops have not been respected in our culture. And so, the argument goes, the police can’t really be expected to do their job without hesitation. Never mind that when your boss tells you you’re under scrutiny that’s no time to slack off further, there is still admittedly a little something to their point.
That argument is only a gesture at the reality, though, one C.S. Lewis saw some 80 years ago. Namely, that we have neutered not just police but men, that we have undermined virtue, and especially courage or fortitude, which conditions all the rest. “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise,” Lewis wrote. “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” The cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. As Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Fortitude includes both kinds of courage—the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain. ‘Guts’ is perhaps the nearest modern English. You will notice, of course, that you cannot practise any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.” No man is virtuous who is not virtuous when it is hard.
The Uvalde tragedy should give us a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs. And that feeling, like Memorial Day every year, should remind us that republican self-government is impossible without courage. Slaves may be cowardly, but free men and women must be courageous or they will not long remain free. Our way of life does not just demand the courage of the citizen soldier, ready to die for his country. And it does not only demand in addition the courage of the police officer, ready to die to uphold the law. Government of the people and by the people and for the people demands also that individual citizens, in the name of prudence, justice, and temperance, have the courage to stand against the mob, just as much as against the lone gunman.