In the wake of the mass slaughter at Virginia Tech, National Review‘s John Derbyshire labored to help grind the faces of survivors by writing:
Where was the spirit of self-defense here? … It’s not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness’ sake—one of them reportedly a .22.
At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren’t very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can’t hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren’t bad.
Yes, yes, I know it’s easy to say these things: but didn’t the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything? As the cliche goes—and like most cliches. It’s true—none of us knows what he’d do in a dire situation like that. I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I’d at least take a run at the guy.
Permit me to answer. The heroes of Flight 93 taught me that ex-Christian Derbyshire believes the pagan error of Stoicism: the notion you can do always what you can do sometimes. It is an error not very far from the far graver error of Pelagianism: the belief that you can pull yourself up to sainthood by your own bootstraps.
The heroes of Flight 93 are remembered because they did something exceptional and rare, not because they typify the norm. They represent not the ordinary level of American Can-Do Courage, but an act of heroism extraordinary anywhere in human history. And they also had some distinct advantages over the people at VT. They had time to reflect, to realize the full gravity of their situation, to realize there was no escape, to coordinate with others, to gather themselves emotionally and mentally, and to formulate a desperate plan—even to say their goodbyes. And they were up against box cutters and men distracted with trying to fly an airplane. At VT, death burst in the door and opened fire.
A few years ago two military jets collided and crashed at an air show in Stuttgart, killing several people on the ground. We have excellent videos of this because, not just the cameraman, but most of the crowd stood stock still as the fireball engulfed its victims. Why? Because planes don’t crash and kill people right in front of you. You don’t move. You don’t know what to do. Nothing in your life prepared you for this.
It’s moments like this when I especially prize the Catholic revelation for its mercy. I honor and revere the heroes of Flight 93. But I don’t hold the victims and survivors of Virginia Tech to that standard and I think it cruel of Derbyshire to burden the survivors with his pagan guilt as they grapple with their entirely normal and human actions in a crisis. St. Paul himself tells us that acts of heroic self-sacrifice are not the norm and never have been when he notes of Christ’s self-sacrifice, “Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8).
Likewise, if there’s anything that scripture pounds into our heads concerning huge promises of courage and deliberate action in crisis situations, it’s the story of Peter’s triple denial of Christ at cock crow. In a moment of extreme pain and shame, Derbyshire uses the power of his pen to suggest that he would not have failed. Oh sure, he qualifies it with “none of us knows what he’d do…” blather. But the point is that he picks a moment when survivors are reeling with shock and shame to cluck his tongue at them. He’d be far better employed using it to clean their boots.
The Church began with the boast “Though everyone else deny you, I will never deny you,” ringing in its ears. Derbyshire’s brave words, boldly punched into a laptop from the comfort of his cubicle, are cheap indeed. What survivors need far more than the scolding of a pagan Stoic is the mercy of the Christ who forgave Peter’s failure in a crisis and gave him a chance to cooperate with grace in his redemption.
Some will complain that this makes weakness, cowardice and sin the default position of the human race. It most certainly does. Didn’t we learn anything when they taught about original sin in Sunday school? That’s why we need a Savior—a merciful one.