Michael Moore, whose opinions on counterterrorism tactics and gunfighting I’m sure we all respect, called snipers “cowards.”
In TTAG’s preliminary Charlie Hebdo shootout scenario, the defender who saved the most lives didn’t confront the attackers head on, or kill them; she covered the retreat of her fellow targets and then fled herself (I am probably not the only one who suspects that being a woman, and being relatively new to shooting, influenced her to make what turned out to be the best decision of the day).
I think there are lessons here for anyone, soldier or civilian, cop or citizen—and it starts with setting our egos to one side and focusing on the mission.
Rory Miller, author of The Logic of Violence, writes about what he calls the “Monkey Dance.” In a one-on-one encounter, it’s typically two young, drunk men at a bar, vying for social dominance—to be the biggest monkey in the room. To back down from such a fight is to risk being mocked as a coward. And even when wisely backing down, or the fight is over, the temptation of the “parting shot,” in which an insult or other social signal is thrown at the other party, is great. In our calmer moments, we can see that bar fights are straight-up stupid. And yet this kind of social-dominance conflict occurs constantly, whether it’s a driver honking at a pedestrian who crosses against the light, or lawyers writing each other nasty letters to say “your position is baseless!” or elderly women angrily crossing names off invitation lists because of some perceived slight. We are all monkeys at bottom.
But if bar fights are stupid, there is something even stupider—to operate from a social, dominance-based response to violence, when the violence is in fact asocial and purpose-driven.
If a guy is attacking you to take your wallet, you can’t end the attack with an apology (like a bar fight) but you can end it by handing over the wallet. And if he’s serious about wanting it, a big haymaker to the side of the head (the “proper” way to start a fight over dominance) is probably going to get you hurt. On the other hand, the willingness to threaten lethal resistance may frighten a mugger away (because even he doesn’t think your wallet is worth his life). So brandishing a weapon may work. But to try out a third scenario, if the attack is ideological terrorism, then your choices are simply kill RIGHT NOW or flee if possible, because a terrorist isn’t engaged in a cost-benefit calculation like a mugger.
Does a sniper have an advantage over the enemy soldier he kills? Sure—shooting from concealment at a great distance is a tremendous advantage. Does that make him a “coward”? Sure—if we think warfare is a bar fight. If the sniper’s purpose is to establish his place in the social pecking order, then being sneaky is a display of weakness and cowardice. He should face his opponent “like a man.” But to even phrase the question that way is to show how ludicrous it is. A sniper’s purpose is to advance the mission, to kill the enemy (preferably high-ranking if possible) and gather intelligence that is useful to the main body of the army he serves. To square off against the enemy as if in a boxing ring would be an astounding act of stupidity.
So it is with a police officer taunted that he is a “coward” for deploying a taser; the cop’s job is not to prove he is a badass streetfighter, but to restore the peace that has been breached and arrest the perpetrators, and worrying about his place in the heirarchy on-scene impedes that mission in a myriad ways. And so it also is with a citizen who carries concealed and is confronted with lethal violence.
To save lives by covering a retreat is a wise and honorable choice. A rearguard is by no means the place for cowards; quite the contrary. But it tends to run against our social instincts; we want to confront the bad people and teach them a lesson for breaking social and legal rules. We want to vanquish our enemies. And, reasonably, we want to see terrorists dead rather than running free, because dead terrorists means no more deaths, whereas covering the retreat of 3 people means 3 lives spared, but unknown numbers lost.
But when it’s one pistol against two rifles—or, in the absence of intelligence, one pistol against an unknown number of unknown weapons—the socially impelled choice, the “heroic” choice, may well mean not only death for the defender, but death for the defended as well.
Making the right choice in the seconds (or less) that surprise attack offers us is incredibly hard. But it may be a little easier if we can plan to set our ego and our social programming aside and define the mission that we seek to complete.