The news that Scot Peterson, the school resource officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stood by and never entered the building while the murders were being committed, has been added to a host of earlier opportunities to deter Cruz that many agencies missed or ignored.

We don’t know why Peterson failed to confront the shooter or even enter the fray. And now, later reports indicate that Peterson may not have been alone in standing back and waiting in safety while students and teachers were being shot inside the school:

CNN reported that when the nearby Coral Springs police department officers arrived on the scene, three sheriff’s deputies from the school county were standing behind their vehicles with their pistols drawn, but had not yet gone into the school.

If confirmed, that raises the number of Broward County police officers on the scene who did not enter the active shooting situation to four…

The Coral Springs police department said it does not have an official comment on the report at this time, calling it “still an open and active investigation.”

So it’s not clear whether the report about the other police officers is correct, or what might have been the cause of any delay. If there was a reluctance to confront the active shooter, was it a systemic problem with the Broward County police, or an individual failure of courage?

With time, let’s hope that more information and clarity will emerge. But in general, people can believe they will respond in a certain way to danger and yet not know for sure what they will do until they’ve actually experienced a live situation in which they either run away, freeze, or go towards danger to neutralize it. Careful training can increase the number of people who will be able to confront the danger or the dangerous person. But it guarantees nothing.

What’s more, untrained people often surprise themselves. Time and again civilians (non-police, non-military) who have acted heroically in an impromptu situation can be heard to say, when they are interviewed afterwards, that they acted without thinking in a way that they believe “anyone” would have done.

Maybe that’s their secret, thinking that anyone would have done what they did. But it’s not the case that all people act this way; not by a longshot.

People in fields such as the military and police tend to be self-selected for the characteristic of running towards danger, and then they are trained to react in a particular way to protect both themselves and others. They are trained to kill when faced with certain situations. That is surprisingly hard, or maybe not so surprising. Some general reluctance has to be overcome, for most people. The military has spent a great deal of time studying this, because it’s important to them.

Over ten years ago I wrote this post on the subject. I’m assuming more has been learned since then, but the gist of it is that the military discovered that a great many men in WWII did not fire their weapons, and so the military developed techniques to enhance soldiers’ reflexes and reduce their stress, making them more effective at killing and also at deciding in a split-second when it is necessary to do so.

This topic conjures up thoughts of Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve never read the book itself, but I had the Classic Comic as a child, and read it when I was about seven or eight years old.

Even when I was at that extremely early age it made a deep impression on me. I had no way to understand its complexities, but I got the gist of it. It was about a young soldier’s moment (or really, moments, plural) of truth in battle, when he discovers what he is made of and has to live with the consequences. I recognized the questions it raised as timeless ones, even at that young age. I was drawn to it because even as a child I’d had my own very small moments of truth in regard to courage, and I didn’t think I measured up to my idea of the person I wanted to be.

A more recent creative work that deals with the same general topic is “The 15:17 to Paris“, the movie Clint Eastwood recently made about the heroes who stopped the armed terrorist on the French train. The film deals with the same issues of courage and reaction to danger, approached from another angle: what was it in the background of these three particular young men that made them run towards danger rather than away? Here’s a trailer:

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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