Heroes in Aurora

Three young men reflexively make the ultimate sacrifice to save their girlfriends -- more than coincidence?

Three episodes from recent European history:

  • In 2007, the nationally known Swedish politician Anna Lindh was gunned down in a Stockholm shopping mall by a gunman who then fled the scene.  The place was busy.  Several people observed the crime.  But it didn't occur to anybody to tackle the killer, and nobody rushed to stop him.
  • The next year, on Queen's Day in Amsterdam, a male model taking part in an outdoor fashion show just off of Rembrandt Square was pulled down from the catwalk and beaten severely by ten Muslim “youths.”  Only one person – a friend of the model – tried to help him.  The show's organizer told me later that there had been a lot of people present – “and I mean a lot!”  But none of them did anything.
  • Some time after the slaughter last July of dozens of campers on an island near Oslo, accusations began to fly.  The head of the youth group camping on the island, it emerged, had been the first to find a boat and make it to shore – leaving behind the kids in his charge, many of them much younger than himself.  One witness noted that only a few campers had made an active effort to help others – and they were all foreigners.

Several years ago I wrote this about the Lindh killing: “People just stood there, waiting for somebody else to do something. Somebody whose job it was.  Hayek was right: the capacity for resistance – the capacity of even conceiving of resistance – is bred out of people in social democracies.” Of course, that's a generalization.  Not everybody in Western Europe is a coward.  Besides, who can say how any of us would act in such situations, when everything is happening fast and when it may seem unclear exactly what is the best thing to do?

Still, I couldn't help thinking of those, and other, historic instances of human passivity when the details of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, began to come out.  I am referring to the remarkable fact that not one, not two, but three of the people who died from gunfire that night were young men who lost their lives protecting their girlfriends from the spray of bullets.

Think of it.  In one part of the theater, Jon Blunk, 25, a security guard who'd served on the U.S.S. Nimitz and wanted to become a Navy SEAL, pushed his girlfriend, Jansen Young, to the floor and under her seat, then covered her with his own body and held her tight.   Elsewhere in the same theater, during the same terrifying moments, Alex Teves, 24, who'd just finished earning a master's degree in clinical psychology, was pushing his girlfriend, Amanda Lindgren, to the floor and shielding her with his body.  Still elsewhere in the theater Matt McQuinn, 27, a clerk at Target, was doing the same thing for his girlfriend Samantha Yowler.

All three of these young men died; all three of these young women lived.

Of all the aspects of the horror at Aurora, this is the one I keep coming back to.  Not only was I deeply moved by the fact of these three amazing acts of self-sacrifice; they raised a host of questions that are probably impossible to answer definitively but that I can't stop asking.

Let's begin with this one: what is the statistical probability that, in a sold-out movie theater faced with such a crisis, three such instances of apparently reflexive heroism would occur?  To put it a bit differently: was this a fluke?  Or not?  How about this question: is such a thing more likely to happen in the U.S. than elsewhere in the developed world?  Is it more likely to happen in a mountain state than in certain other regions of the country?

Further questions came to mind.  Some of them clearly arose because I've spent much of the last couple of years working on a book about the role of ideology – including radical feminism – in the American academy and its effect on the broader culture.  In the course of my research I've read books and attended lectures that were simply drenched in man-hatred.  I've been exposed repeatedly to the mantra that every male is a potential rapist and every woman a potential victim – the argument that without men there would be no aggression, no murder, and no war (to say nothing of those ubiquitous evils, competition and capitalism).  And in the last few days, as a result, I've wondered: since the horror at Aurora, how many professors of Women's Studies and other such disciplines (not to mention high-school social-studies teachers and the like) have devoted classroom time to discussions of the “lesson” or “lessons” of Aurora?

I suspect that a good many of them have, and it's pretty clear to me what “lesson” your typical Women's Studies prof would draw from the events of that night.  Namely, this: the human male, born savage, has been more or less domesticated in most of the countries of the developed world, thanks in large part to their stricter limits on gun ownership and their more feminist-influenced cultures.  In America, however, owing to its deplorable Second Amendment and its Wild West mentality, the male of the species remains more untamed – in love with guns, in love with violence.  I suspect that in recent days, James Holmes has been cited in a thousand classrooms as a cautionary example of the male as monster: look, even the harmless-looking science nerd can be a mass murderer!

Americans and Europeans alike talk as if America alone had its Columbines and Virginia Techs.  Why is it that none of the most recent atrocities of this kind in Western Europe – among them the 2007 incident in which a Finnish student gunned down eight people at his school, the 2009 murder of fourteen people in and around a German school, the 2011 killing of six people at a Dutch mall, not even the mass slaughter in Norway – has acquired a catchy shorthand name like “Columbine”?  Why (except for the Norwegian massacre) do they disappear so quickly off the international radar screen?  Why are atrocities like Columbine and Virginia Tech always served up as evidence of some deeper malady that afflicts only America, while similar events in other countries are never analyzed in such terms?  Can it be that what truly sets America apart is not the frequency of such incidents within its borders but the astonishing degree of reflexive heroism of which its people are capable when faced with such an event?

I wonder: how many Women's Studies professors have taken time in recent days to consider what lessons the actions of Jon Blunk, Alex Teves, and Matt McQuinn might teach us about the human male – and, in particular, perhaps, about the American male?  Might their threefold heroism actually be a symptom of something special and wonderful about America – something that has to do with its history of individualism and self-reliance, of frontier-conquering pioneers and GIs who liberated foreign peoples from totalitarian tyranny?  How indeed, one almost wants to ask, is it possible that in a culture suffused with radical-feminist male-hatred and scorn for traditional gender roles that all three of these young men acted instantly to risk their lives for the women they loved?

Blunk, to be sure, was a veteran who wanted to be a Navy SEAL, and whose military training might be credited in part for his spontaneous act of valor.  But the others?  McQuinn was a clerk at Target.  And Teves was a psych student, who in the last couple of years may well have been exposed to even more mindless, male-bashing PC claptrap than I have while working on my book.  But all three of them acted like Navy SEALs.  They all died proving that they had what Tom Wolfe called the Right Stuff.  To what extent was this the result of sheer primitive instinct, and to what extent the product of civilized ethical upbringings?  To what extent can it be fairly characterized as distinctly American? 

Many Western Europeans, of course, consider themselves more civilized than Americans, and as an example of their superiority they routinely point to their revulsion for gun rights.  But at what point in the climb toward true civilization do you start to slide downhill into the slough of decadence?  Who is more civilized, the man who stands by passively and impotently while murderous mischief is afoot or the man whose first instinct is to take responsibility – and to take immediate action?

Until not terribly long ago, major works in all the major forms of narrative in Western culture – novels, stories, plays, films – routinely and uncynically held up as heroes men who put their lives on the line for others.  Self-sacrifice: this was, ultimately, what it meant to be a man.  What, if anything, does it mean that of all the storytelling genres and subgenres – high, low, and in between – that are thriving in today's postmodern, irony-besotted West, pretty much the only one in which the leading male characters can usually be relied upon to be not just protagonists but real heroes, valiant and chivalrous in the corniest old-fashioned sense, is the action-comic movie – presumably (though I haven't seen it yet myself) like Batman: The Dark Knight Rises?  Which brings us to one last question (for now, anyway): is it fair to wonder what would have happened if a crazed gunman had decided to shoot up a theater in Manhattan – or Amsterdam, or Stockholm – in which people were watching, say, the latest Woody Allen movie?

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Tags: shooting