Violence and the Obligation to Resist
I'm not really thinking about the terrible incident at Virginia Tech just yet, but, rather, thinking about such incidents in general terms, and thinking about the sobering fact that such things will inevitably happen again.
Whenever I hear about incidents of this kind, I automatically begin flipping through possible types of action (this will happen in the back of my mind even if I don't think about it explicitly). In an actual situation of the relevant kind, there's a fairly high probability that my primary course of action would involve a lot of hiding and running away, but I at least recognize that that's probably not what I ought to do.
Since one doesn't want to have to think through such things from the ground up in the moment, it's good to think about the general issues ahead of time. I'm wondering whether we might need to think about what policies for action are ideal and admirable under such conditions, even if those policies might be difficult to enact in the face of actual danger.
I think that the actions of some of the passengers on United flight 93 probably provide us with an exemplar here. Recognizing that death was almost certain if they did not act, they elected to fight back against their attackers. It seems fairly clear that this policy is rational. Many pacifists will deny this, but that merely illustrates what most people already realize: that pacifism is an unreasonable and morally indefensible position.
Most situations are not as clear-cut as that on flight 93, however. In very many cases, a given individual's odds of survival might reasonably be thought to increase if he declines to fight back. That is, in such cases, if Smith attacks the shooter, Smith's odds of survival go down. However, if no one attacks the shooter, more people will be killed. So individuals in such cases face a difficult choice.
I think we all need to recognize that there is at least some small chance that we will be called upon to make such a choice, and I think that it is clear that each of us should at least recognize that we are under some obligation to make sacrifices under such circumstances. We have a general obligation to defend the innocent, and in some cases this obligation entails that we must risk our own lives.
It had not even occurred to me that there had been no discussion of these points until the mighty Armenius pointed this out to me. The response of our own institution has so far been of the candlelight-vigil-and-grief-counselor variety, and one worries that that's all it will ever come to. It's still early, and I think everyone acknowledges that there's a time for grieving. Eventually, however, we will have to address questions about confronting evil. What we don't want to do is to focus on grieving and sadness exclusively, with no attention to thinking about what this might teach us about what we ought to do in the future.
One of the many reasons that the Virginia Tech shooter was able to kill so many innocent people was that he caught a building full of nineteen-year-old kids flat-footed at nine o'clock on a Monday morning in a place they thought to be safe beyond question. He had every advantage, which is just the way the predatory like it, of course. They usually won't attack under less-than-ideal conditions. The rest of us will always be at a disadvantage.
There's a lot of talk around these parts about how our students are looking to us for guidance in this matter. Supposing that there's any truth in that, my guess is that one of the best things we can do for them is talk to them seriously about their moral obligation to defend themselves and other innocent people. That is, about the fact that they are sometimes obligated to do violence, and sometimes obligated to risk their lives. One of the best ways to prepare for the future is to think hard about it ahead of time, to have a plan of action. You don't want to have to think things through from the ground up in the heat of the moment. Making these points to people, helping them to steel themselves for defensive action, is better than holding vigils for them after their death, however important the latter might be.