As we are all acutely and painfully aware, on February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school in Parkland, Florida, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, and began a shooting rampage that ended with 17 people dead and 14 injured. This particular school shooting would be one of the worst in recent memory in the United States.
A few days later, news outlets reported that Scot Peterson, an armed school resource deputy assigned to the school, was outside the building when the shooting began, but didn’t go inside.
Like everyone else, I reacted initially with shock and disappointment when I heard this. I repeatedly wondered how many people might have been spared a horrific death, if he had simply done his job and ran into the building. I didn’t expect him to single-handedly take down the assailant and save the day (like a police drama protagonist on television) but I did expect him to do something. Law enforcement officers are supposed to protect us, and even put their lives on the line in the performance of their duty. It didn’t take long before he was labelled (at least on social media) “The Coward of Broward”.
Then I read an opposing point of view, from someone who is vastly more qualified than I to speak on such matters. Jim Diamond (a retired police officer, SWAT team member and demolitions expert, with 34 years of experience) argued that Peterson did the right thing, because it would have been unwise to run into that situation without backup. He added that it is unfair to blame the deaths of the 17 students on this one individual. Then he said something very interesting: “And one incident where he was possibly untrained or emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it, is going to mark him for life.“
This is the avenue I’d like to explore: he may have been emotionally ill-equipped to handle this situation.
What does it take to engage yourself in an active shooting situation? I have no idea. I’ve never been a law enforcement officer or in the military, and I’ve never owned a gun, which relegates me to a mere armchair quarterback, judging silently from the sidelines.
The Military Historian’s View
Gwynne Dyer is a military historian who joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve when he was 16. After receiving his Ph.D in military history, he became a journalist, and during the 1980s he was the host of the television documentary series War. In one episode of this series, Dyer proposes that humans are not wired to kill other people, and that being able to kill on command goes against our very nature.
In the episode entitled Anybody’s Son Will Do, he explains: “All soldiers belong to the same profession, and it makes them different from everybody else. They have to be different, for their job is ultimately about killing and dying, and that doesn’t come naturally to any human being… The method for turning young men into soldiers – people who kill other people – is basic training… The secret of basic training is that it’s not really about teaching people about things at all. It’s about changing people, so that they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamt of otherwise. If you want to change people quickly and radically, what you do is put them in a place where the only right way to think and to behave is the way you want them to. You isolate them; and then you apply enormous physical and mental pressure… [These recruits are] entering a machine which turns out a very special and artificial product: soldiers.“
Dehumanizing the Enemy
Killing another human being goes against everything that’s hard-wired into us, and it takes years of specialized training and extreme physical and psychological conditioning to act against it. That’s why, in addition to basic training, soldiers are repeatedly exposed to material that dehumanizes the enemy.
In a 2007 report by Lt. Col. David Grossman entitled Hope On The Battlefield, he writes “There have been active efforts by the American military apparatus, since World War II, to overcome the basic resistance that human beings have towards killing other members of their own species. One of the most fundamental of these efforts has been to dehumanise the enemy.“
Brian K. Price wrote the following in Quora “I would highly recommend the book “On Killing” by LTC Dave Grossman (USA-ret). He does a great job of explaining how hard it is for one person to kill another person (outside of a direct interest such as wrath, greed, jealousy, etc.) and how this has impacted the US military throughout our earlier wars. He then… discusses how training has been modified to overcome these inherent stoppages in killing others and what the implications may be for society as a whole.“
In wartime, the enemy is often portrayed as a group of savages, living in a primitive, backwards land, who don’t share the same values as everyone else. Propaganda videos malign their culture and portray them as inferior.
There is, however, a price to pay. Success in getting a soldier to view the enemy as an object, an animal, or anything less than human, carries its own collateral damage. Medical Daily argues that this psychological conditioning affects soldiers long after they return from the battlefield, often manifesting itself as mental illness, depression and schizophrenia.
The television series The Outer Limits dealt with this subject, in the episode Hearts and Minds. [Spoiler alert] Soldiers fighting a battle on another planet, in order to protect a mineral claim there, are given regular injections of a hallucinatory drug. This drug makes the enemy appear to them as grotesque insect-like creatures, so that they will be easier to kill. The commanding officers, however, tell the soldiers that the drug is a vaccine that will inoculate them against alien parasites, and must be re-administered regularly. When one soldier misses his dose, the drug starts to wear off, and the enemies slowly transform back into humans, resulting in a moral quandary among the soldiers.
“You may have to make the decision to give up and die, or to make somebody else give up and die… and what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?” – James Burke
Donald Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting is a plan to arm 20% of schoolteachers. He is also offering them a monetary bonus if they agree to carry a gun in their classroom. As you can imagine, this idea is not being well received.
I also think this is an exceedingly poor idea, and one that is not particularly well-thought-out.
As armchair quarterbacks, I think most of us, to varying degrees, subscribe to the following idealized version of events, gleaned from watching hundreds of hours of television: our hero runs boldly and conspicuously into a school, assesses the situation instantly, and then proceeds to take out the shooter with a single bullet, with 100% accuracy and no collateral damage. Our hero also survives unharmed, physically and psychologically.
The reality, of course, is vastly different. Let’s examine what’s at stake when a teacher is expected to use a firearm.
- First, there is a question of accuracy. In this British television program called The Last Leg, the host (at 3:03 in the video) says “A study by the New York Police Department found that, in gun fights, their highly-trained officers had an 18% hit rate.“
- Teachers aren’t military soldiers or veterans. They haven’t endured basic training, or the intense physical and mental conditioning that trains soldiers to kill.
- The person they must shoot isn’t someone whose humanity has been diminished through dehumanizing exercises, or distorted by propaganda videos.
- This won’t be someone from a far-off land on the other side of the world, who looks different. The person they are expected to kill will likely be an American; someone who looks just like us.
- On the battlefield, soldiers are shooting strangers. A school shooting is likely to be carried out by a student or a former student. There is a good chance that the teacher will know this person.
- Not only will the teacher likely know the shooter, it is also likely that at least one of the teachers will have taught this person – the student whom they spent countless hours instructing and nurturing, and during that time, forging an emotional bond.
- Finally, in war, soldiers are killing adults. In a school shooting, you will have to kill a child. Think about this for a moment…
Jim Wright posted an insightful analysis on Quora, detailing the emotional reality of being asked to kill a child. Here is an edited version of that post (the full version is in the link, above):
“‘Specially-trained.’ Who designs the training. On what criteria? To what standards?
This training would have to specially designed because you’re talking about non-professionals with guns in a building full of panicked children AND those “specially trained people” will be very likely facing a CHILD with a gun who is killing other children.
We don’t train soldiers for that. We don’t train cops for that. So we’re going to need special training, including not just the mechanics and theory of combat arms, but the psychology of killing a CHILD in an active shooter situation.
If you don’t understand why this is a problem, then you’re very likely unqualified to be in this conversation in the first place. It takes years of training to condition a soldier to kill another human being on command, let alone a child.
And when that killing occurs, it’s usually in a warzone, alongside your squadmates, and while that engagement is very, very often chaotic, it can’t be compared to the confusion and chaos of a building packed with screaming running children that you are supposed to be protecting. In a warzone, if your bullets hit a civilian, even a child, well, that’s collateral damage. It happens. It can’t NOT happen. That’s war. But a school? Full of American kids? You are essentially talking about turning teachers into soldiers and schools into war zones.“
A Failure To Engage
In December 2014, Scot Peterson was a recipient of the School Resource Officer of the Year Award by the Broward County Crime Commission (pages 10 and 20). Peterson has been the resource officer at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School since 2009 and during the past four years, I’m sure that he got to know many, if not most, of the current students in the school.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said in an interview that in the Deputy Peterson incident, there was a “failure to engage”. Some news reports also used that same phrase. I think this is a reasoned and non-judgmental way of expressing the situation. Despite all of his years on the force and all of his firearm training, Scot Peterson – for reasons known only to him – couldn’t bring himself to enter the school, and now I’m beginning to understand why this is possible.
I must admit that I still lament Peterson’s decision not to enter the school that day, and I often think about what might have been if he had engaged the shooter, but now I’m trying my best to view him with some compassion. Because what prevented Scot Peterson from running into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 is, ultimately, what makes us all human.