OSD 178: When the chips are down
We tweeted this a while ago:
John Carmack @ID_AA_CarmackCarrying a pocket knife has a subtle metaphysical context for me -- I am a tool user, and I can shape the world around me, not merely inhabit it.
Exercising your right to defend yourself is a package of behaviors. It’s carrying the requisite tools. It’s building a narrative for yourself about who you aspire to be. And it’s putting in enough specific, focused work to guarantee that you’ll actually be that person if push comes to shove. Each of those components is necessary, but none is sufficient on its own.
An image you may have seen last week was that of the Uvalde, TX police officer whose wife was a teacher among the victims of the elementary school massacre there. Here’s the timeline (timestamps from the clock in the top left of the school hallway video, and we’re referring to the officer in question as PO):
11:33:02: gunman enters school and begins killing
11:35:57: first police officers visible on hallway video
11:36:09: two officers arrive at the door to the classroom the gunman is in
11:36:17: PO enters the school and becomes visible on hallway video. He stands at the end of the hallway with his gun in hand, watching the two officers on the classroom door.
11:36:46: PO checks his phone for messages from his wife
11:36:57: gunman fires on the police at the door, and they fall back to the end of the hallway, next to where PO is standing
11:37:23: PO turns and walks towards the exit door, out of frame of the camera
11:37:40: PO re-enters the frame and says to another officer, “That’s my wife’s classroom.”
11:37:49: More gunshots from the gunman. One officer begins advancing down the hallway by himself towards the classroom, and PO and the others peek around the corner in that direction.
11:38:05: PO begins pacing
11:38:30: PO walks towards the exit door, out of view of the camera
If the day before the shooting you had asked PO, “What would you do if your wife was in a school shooting, stuck in a classroom with the gunman, and you and six other armed police officers were standing right down the hallway?”, what would he have said? He’d have earnestly said what we’d all earnestly say: that there’s nothing on earth that would stop him from raiding the classroom.
Let’s take a moment here to look in the mirror. (As the novelist Marian Keyes once said, “The things we dislike most in others are the characteristics we like least in ourselves.”)
There’s an uncomfortable fact of humanity: when the chips are down, it’s not a given that people will rise to the moment. But beforehand, everybody is genuinely convinced that they will. When we don’t live up to our own self-image, often we’re just as disappointed as everybody else is.
People can criticize PO, and there’s no social risk to that. (More on that phenomenon in the classic “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup”.) It’s easy to say, “If it was my wife in the classroom, they’d have had to kill me to stop me from running in there.” Many people would run in. But everybody says they would, and then in reality a bunch of them don’t. So you do the math. A lot of people inaccurately predict their own behavior.
What causes that?
There’s a popular line with gun instructors that “you don't rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” The point is that you have no idea what you’ll do in the moment until you’ve been in the moment. The point of training is to put you in the moment over and over, and to do so ahead of time.
There are limits to that, of course. No training can simulate the feeling of knowing for real that you’re in a life-or-death situation. Special operations vets can tell you stories all day about seeing people who trained their entire lives for combat collapse mentally once they were in it. Or even seasoned operators who one day hit a wall and shut down on target.
Training is necessary, but not sufficient.
There were 376 law enforcement officers on site in Uvalde, many of them with excellent training and tools. But it still took over 80 minutes for the right thing to happen. Failures like that don’t happen because of one person, they happen because a whole system failed.
One illustration of that, from a news article about the Texas House committee report on the shooting (bold emphasis ours):
DPS Special Agent Luke Williams disregarded a request that he assist in securing a perimeter outside and instead entered the building to help clear rooms. He found a student hiding in a boys bathroom stall with his legs up so he couldn’t be seen. The boy refused to come out until Williams proved he was a police officer, which he did by showing his badge beneath the door of the stall.
Williams then encountered a group of officers clustered at the end of the hallway where the shooter was and overheard someone ask, “Y’all don’t know if there’s kids in there?”
“If there’s kids in there, we need to go in there,” Williams said at 11:56 a.m., according to footage captured by his body camera.
An officer in the hallway responded to Williams that “whoever was in charge would figure that out,” the report said.
It’s depressing to see almost 400 people collectively do the wrong because they’ve been systematically trained into permission culture. For a system to fail, nearly everyone has to do the wrong thing. But for it to succeed, only a few people have to insist on the right thing.
Take for example the story of Angeli Gómez, the mother who got arrested outside the school while arguing with police about going in, talked a different officer into letting her out of the cuffs, and then hopped a fence and ran into the school to grab her kids.
Take as another example Lt. Javier Martinez, the first officer into the school who rushed down the hallway, leading the way and taking a grazing wound to the head. The sad part is it wasn’t enough. But if just 1-2 more people had matched Martinez’s level of drive, it could have turned the tide of the whole situation.
Angeli Gómez and Javier Martinez were like the first guy in the Sasquatch music festival dance party video. Just a couple more could have catalyzed a chain reaction.
They say it’s easier to destroy than to create. But in institutional failures, that’s a bit backwards. No individual can make a whole group’s efforts fail. But a few individuals can make a group succeed.
This week’s links
Jonathan Lemire @JonLemireGREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) — Police say a shooting at an Indiana mall killed 3 people and wounded two before a civilian shot, killed gunman.
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