Men unmanned

A depressing story from the UK.

A judge has hailed the heroism of an 83-year-old war veteran who tackled a gunman during a robbery at a bookmakers while nine other men stood by.

Sidney Bannister, who served with the Royal Artillery Corps during World War II, put 30-year-old robber Henry Rockson in a headlock.

But the pensioner’s calls for assistance met a wall of silence and up to nine other men in the shop – most far younger than Mr Bannister – stood by as Rockson smashed him twice in the head with the butt of the gun. […]

[T]he widower, of Lees near Oldham, Greater Manchester, said: ‘There were nine other blokes in the shop and most of them were either half my age or younger. I just wish one of them had shown some gumption. […]

After the court case, Mr Bannister expressed his gratitude for the judge’s comments but added: ‘I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.

‘I had seen this man raise a gun at a woman and grab some money … and when he started to make a run for it I just thought, “Why should he be allowed to get away with it?”

‘People don’t want to get involved these days. In my day we were brought up to have a go and not be a shrinking violet when we saw something happening that was very wrong.’

After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Mark Steyn remembered Canada’s most famous mass-murder.

Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.

One more: the story of a young Chinese woman, decapitated last week in a Virginia Tech cafe while half-a-dozen people watched.

Authorities gave this account: Virginia Tech police, responding to two frantic 911 calls about 7 p.m. Wednesday, found Zhu standing in the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, with Yang’s severed head in his hands, according to an affidavit. A large, bloody kitchen knife lay nearby, and Zhu’s backpack, on the floor, was filled with other sharp weapons. Seven people witnessed the attack, which came without as much as a raised voice as the two drank coffee.

Decapitation is a bit more involved than simply stabbing someone. Did it not occur to any of those seven people that perhaps they could do something?

Perhaps not. In times of stress, higher cognitive functioning falls by the wayside while instincts and emotion take over. We can take it as a given that the instinct for self-preservation is going to be clamoring for attention, but, for men throughout history, another instinct would chime in: Protect the weak. Better death than dishonor. Note Sidney Bannister’s explanation of his actions: “I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.” He doesn’t understand that the other nine men in that store also acted on instinct. They just had different instincts. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes,

Stress releases cortisol into the blood. It invades the hippocampus and interferes with its work. (Long-term stress can kill hippocampal cells.) The amygdala has powerful connections to the sensory cortices, the rhinal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the ventral prefrontal cortext, which means that the entire memory system, both input and output, are affected. As a result, most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. They can’t remember the most basic things. […] Although strong emotion can interfere with the ability to reason, emotion is also necessary for both reasoning and learning. Emotion is the source of both success and failure at selecting correct action at the crucial moment.

Instinct – what Gonzales calls emotion – comes through practice. In a society where courtesy to women is an insult, where a disproportionate fear of pedophilia discourages male interaction with children, how exactly do we expect men to develop the instinct to protect those weaker than themselves? Describing the Lepine massacre mentioned above, Crime Library says, “They wondered whether they should try to overpower the gunman, protect the women, or leave. The choice as to what was best was unclear. But after a few moments, the male students and teachers walked outside. In weeks to come, many of them would have nightmares about this moment, reliving it over and over, wishing they had acted differently.”

At the crucial moment, stress forced these men to operate instinctively. Their most basic selves stood bare in the face of danger. And stood. And blinked impotently. And quietly walked away, because at a fundamental, instinctual level, they had nothing to tell them what to do. They were not all cowards. Most likely, if they had had time for reflection, time to reason through what was happening and decide what they ought to do, at least some of them would have reacted differently. But they didn’t have that time, so they needed instincts that our culture gave them no chance to develop.

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