The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s not so easy to be a hero

Police officers walk past a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., on May 26. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
5 min

We don’t need another hero,” sang the great Tina Turner in a megahit from 1985. But we could have used one on Tuesday in Uvalde, Tex.

I say this as an ordinary person whose courage under fire has never been tested and — I fervently hope — never will be. I am in no position to judge the law enforcement officers who stood outside an elementary school while a killer was inside for over an hour.

Still, it’s important to look unsentimentally at the timid response in Uvalde, which was not so different from the police response at Columbine High School in 1999, or at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, or at any number of chaotic and dangerous scenes created by murderous narcissists who write their pain in the blood of innocents.

The brand of heroism that enables someone to advance on a gunman is more rare than Hollywood would have us believe. Military historian John Keegan, in his 1978 masterpiece “The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme,” explored the often decisive element of fear in warfare — a topic frequently hushed up. “The majority” of soldiers “are unwilling to take extraordinary risks and do not aspire to a hero’s role,” he wrote. This would not have been news to Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson of the Union Army at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862: Leading a group of reinforcements toward the front, he paused to deploy his guns and threaten to shoot men fleeing the battle.

Henry Olsen: Yes, we should ‘back the blue.’ But they must fulfill their oaths.

Most people do not want to die a violent death or even suffer a painful wound. Moreover, most do not want to kill or maim. Rare is the story of a soldier charging enemy guns on his first day in battle. That sort of valor must be learned over time and is not without cost.

Lt. Audie Murphy’s fearless one-man stand against six German tanks and a wall of infantry came less than four months before the Nazi surrender in World War II, and he later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Lt. Daniel K. Inouye’s solo charge against three enemy machine guns — in which he knocked out all three, at the price of his arm — came mere days before the end.

At least as common, and probably much more so, is the perfectly human mix of revulsion and panic that, according to historian Ernest B. Furgurson, led many soldiers of the Civil War to reload their muskets before they had fired the previous round, going through the motions of battle without committing themselves to the grim work of death.

Keegan noted various rituals, common to armies through the ages, that readied troops for battle, from religious rites to rations of liquor and doses of drugs. The strongest thing those lawmen in Uvalde had consumed before they arrived at Robb Elementary was probably a cup of coffee.

The milling cops outside the school are a strong reply to those who say the solution to mass shootings is to have more people with guns in our schools and churches, our concert venues and grocery stores. Judging from the videos posted to social media by confounded onlookers, there was no shortage of guns in Uvalde — only a shortage of officers willing to run inside and attempt to shoot a young man who was shooting back at them.

“If they proceeded any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot,” Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Chris Olivarez explained on CNN. “They could’ve been killed.”

Realistically, how confident can we be that schoolteachers, lunchroom cooks, church ushers or produce stockers will be any better prepared to draw down and do battle than those trained professionals in Uvalde? After all, the mass killers have every advantage: They have their weapons, they have the element of surprise, and they’ve decided they’re ready to die, an empowering frame of mind.

A strategy for curing the epidemic of mass shootings that depends on the presence of a calm, collected, gun-slinging hero in every classroom and pew is doomed to fail. Such people are rare — even among graduates of police and military training.

We must instead keep trying to unravel the deadly tangle of cheap fame and alienated young men. It has been heartening to see major news organizations avoid overuse of the Uvalde killer’s name and picture. That’s a baby step in the right direction. Still, for a dead-ender steeped in the too-American belief that infamy is better than anonymity, havoc is a path to the spotlight. And that’s a problem.

We close today as we began, with Tina Turner and the theme song from “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Dystopia seems appropriate, and the question she sings rarely more apt: “And I wonder when we are ever gonna change. Living under the fear, till nothing else remains.”