At mass shootings, many people seem either to cower, not knowing what to do, or to flee. Apart from a few who courageously try to protect others, for many it's either deer in the headlights or sauve qui peut, every man for himself. We've seen this going back at least as early as the 1991 Luby's massacre in Killeen, Texas, in which 23 were killed (and the shooter killed himself), plus 20 wounded.
Cowering or fleeing is a natural human reaction. (In cold economic terms, fleeing may be the extreme case of the free-rider problem: Let someone else take care of the problem.)
But ask yourself: At the Aurora theater shooting, what would have happened if a crowd of moviegoers had immediately rushed the shooter, despite the obvious risk, because "that's what we do" for each other?
There's no denying that the shooter might well have shot one or more of his attackers. At the Luby's massacre, 71-year-old (!) Al Gratia rushed at the shooter and was fatally shot in the chest. (It's noteworthy that the selfless Gratia was a World War II veteran.)
But if lots of people had attacked at Luby's or at the Aurora theater, a lot of lives might have been saved:
- The shooter wouldn't have had time to get off so many shots before being overpowered.
- Nor would he have had as much time to take careful aim, so whomever he did manage to shoot might well have been wounded, not killed.
- Conceivably the shooter, surprised at being attacked himself, might have 'frozen,' in which case he might not have shot anyone else.
And would the Aurora shooter have proceeded if he knew in advance that he was going to be immediately attacked by the crowd? He seems to have acted pretty "rationally," in a twisted sort of way. He had full body armor. He was well-armed. He had thought through his plan at least somewhat. If he had known that he was going to be immediately tackled by the crowd, he might have proceeded with his plan anyway — but maybe not.
That's why (it's been said) a 9/11-style airplane hjacking will never happen again: terrorists know that the passengers will rush and overpower the hijackers. The terrorists might be able to blow up the plane, or to crash it, but they won't be able to use it as a fuel-laden guided missile to kill thousands of others. Americans have learned from the heroic example of the passengers on United Flight 93, who stopped its hijackers from flying the plane into the White House or the Capitol. (Something similar actually occurred in the case of the shoe bomber, who was overpowered by flight attendants and passengers.)
Let's be clear about a couple of things here. First, I'm talking here about fighting back against a mass murderer like the guy in Aurora; I absolutely do not mean invoking a stand-your-ground law as an excuse to shoot somebody. Second, special cases exist: Let's say you're a parent with kids in tow (or in your arms); in that kind of situation, your first obligation is to protect your kids as best you can, and that will almost certainly call for a snap judgment call.
But otherwise, we Americans should commit ourselves to a higher standard: If, God forbid, we ever find ourselves in a mass-shooting situation, then we will attack, immediately — and trust that we won't be alone — because we owe that to each other. The Department of Homeland Security says that attacking the shooter should be a last resort, but I think that's backwards.
Would I personally react by rushing the shooter in an Aurora-type emergency? I wish I knew; I certainly hope so.