Reacting to what many in Britain and elsewhere are regarding as the disgraceful behavior while in captivity of the British sailors and marines kidnapped by the Iranians, Simon Heffer recently wrote in the London Daily Telegraph: “Why are some so weak-minded compared with those 18 year-olds who, within living memory, went over the top on the Somme, or splashed through machine-gun fire onto the Normandy beaches?” Heffer himself belongs to the “I-blame-the-parents” school of thought on this matter — though he also thinks that the responsibility of the older generation for bringing up kids like the young sailor who was unashamed to confess that he had cried himself to sleep at night because his iPod had been confiscated and his Iranian captors had called him “Mr. Bean” extends beyond his parents. Presumably neither they nor any teachers or culture-bearers ever taught Mr. Bean that any considerations of honor or morality ought to take precedence over his own feelings.
Heffer’s question could also be asked, I think, about the Virginia Tech students who fled as the Korean gunman, Cho Seung Hui, went on his homicidal rampage on their campus Monday — or who, like Jamal Albarghouti, instead of fleeing, took out their cell phones to record the sights and sounds of the massacre. “This is what this YouTube-Facebook-instant messaging generation does,” reported the Washington Post of Albarghouti’s exploit as if it were a matter for pride: “Witness. Record. Share.” And, as the Post might have added, not fight back. It appears to have occurred to no one to do that. Or even to wonder whether or not it might have been desirable to do that. “You are one brave guy Jamal,” wrote someone on his Facebook site after his video had run on CNN.com. But the idea that any greater bravery than his might have been possible — the kind of bravery that could have saved lives by taking down the gunman earlier in his murderous career — is one that seems not to have been picked up on the LCDs of the YouTube-Facebook-instant-messaging generation.
One clear hero of the day seems to have been someone from quite another generation, a 76-year-old Romanian-Jewish immigrant and Holocaust survivor named Liviu Librescu who taught engineering science and mathematics at the university and who barricaded the door of his classroom with his body long enough to allow a number of his students to escape out the windows. When the shooter eventually burst into the room, he shot Librescu and the two students who had not yet managed to get out. “My father blocked the doorway with his body and asked the students to flee,” said the hero’s son, Joe Librescu, from Israel where he lives. “Students started opening windows and jumping out.” Someone posted on the God Bless Virginia Tech blog that was set up as an early student response to the shootings: “What a wonderful man, a survivor, and a hero. He will be missed!”
That detail, by the way, comes from a story in the Times of London headed, “Virginia Tech professor hailed as a hero.” Back in the U.S.A., however, there was not nearly so much hailing going on as you (or the Times) might think. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times on Tuesday mentioned Professor Librescu’s act of courage and self-sacrifice in passing, but neither made a point of distinguishing him from the other victims who were apparently killed without resisting. Perhaps like Paul Greengrass’s film, United 93, the American media is rather embarrassed by heroism and thinks it insulting to the other victims of such atrocities to single out the heroes for special attention. Instead of showing any interest in Librescu’s brave act, the American media were concentrating to the point of obsession on the feelings of the victims and the psychology of the killer. “Evil, that’s what some call it,” wrote Neely Tucker in the Style section of the Post, handsomely acknowledging millennia of religious tradition before going on to note that psychology would prefer to use terms like “depressed, angry and humiliated” to describe the perpetrator of mass murder. How much more interesting are the feelings even of a monster than the deeds of a hero!
Do you suppose that this could have anything to do with the paucity of heroes among the younger generation? Simon Heffer suggests later in his article that the British ministry of defense should provide members of the armed forces with DVDs of old movies like The Colditz Story, The Cruel Sea, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, or Carve Her Name with Pride before sending them into action. It’s a reminder that the culture once paid more attention to heroes and acts of heroism than to either suffering victims or psychotic killers. Not coincidentally, I think, acts of heroism were a lot more frequent in those days. Nowadays all we have are superheroes — either the acknowledged kind, like Spider-Man, the third installment of whose celluloid history is due in cinemas next month, or the unacknowledged kind like James Bond, the DVD of whose umpteenth outing went on sale last month. But superheroes are immortal and nearly invulnerable, which makes them very watchable — like Albarghouti’s video — but worthless as a model for young men to emulate.
Maybe no one could have stopped the madman from getting his full budget of murders, but it seems to me a lot more likely that someone would have done so if the media and the movies of today ever offered us any examples of real heroism untinged by ambiguity, doubt, or moral compromise. And is it too far-fetched to wonder whether there might not also be fewer delusional killers in the first place if we lived in a culture less devoted to fantasy, a culture of more heroes and fewer superheroes? Oh, and lest you think I exaggerate the malign influence of the superhero, just look at the page following Tucker’s article on the psychology of mass murder. There you will find a little item in the Post‘s gossip column, “The Reliable Source,” about the departure from Washington of the actor, Nicolas Cage, who had been filming a movie there. It reminds us that Cage and his wife, Alice, have named their small son Kal-El, after the name of Superman’s Kryptonian father. What do you suppose are the chances of that poor child’s turning into a real hero?
– James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Honor: A History.