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This is an ugly article, but it has to be written.
The news broke Thursday that a pathetic excuse for a man named Scot Peterson had a chance to intervene and try to save the lives of innocent teenagers in Parkland, Florida. Instead, he waited outside like a detestable coward. All the while, a pathetic loser inside went about his evil business, killing America’s sons and daughters. The killer ought to remain unrecognized. Let his name be consigned to oblivion.
But Peterson, on the heels of this incident a newly retired Broward County Sheriff deputy and “school resources officer,” is in need of forgiveness. In order authentically to get it, however, he first must be named and shamed.
We rightly laud the heroism of Peter Wang, the 15-year-old Junior ROTC cadet who died helping lead his classmates to safety. “Any self-respecting man would have charged the pathetic loser who was shooting children,” I wrote Wednesday. On Thursday, when asked how his former deputy should have responded to the gunfire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Peterson should have “went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.” Peterson no doubt knows this, since he resigned upon being discovered.
Scot Peterson should be ashamed of himself. And we should make sure he knows it. God will forgive him if he asks for it, but we should make clear what he did is shameful. The same reasoning that demands we honor Peter Wang demands we shame Scot Peterson.
A free society cannot long endure if the idea of manliness that reigns in the minds of its citizens does not include courage. Establishing a free society is a daunting and costly task, one that demands both our greatest efforts and divine Providence. Keeping it free may be even harder.
I remember growing up with this silly notion around me that any man might find out, in the moment of crisis, that he is a coward and so be it—it’s something beyond our control. How foolish. Courage is a virtue. Virtue comes from habituation, not chance. It is true that some men are hopeless cowards, and they deserve our pity. But we cannot raise our boys to believe that courage is a force outside of our control that either possesses you or it does not.
Instead we need to raise our boys to be men—men who understand that manliness is courage. Manliness is sacrifice. This is not a trait for heroes or Navy SEALs only; it must be a common trait in common men. We have to habituate men to pain and struggle; we must show them the higher reward for lower costs; we must habituate them to the idea that in that time of crisis they must be courageous.
And we must teach them the Holy Scripture that proclaims that “greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends.” They must know this. This is hard to teach boys, but it is harder yet if they see cowards get off easy.
As pitiable as Scot Peterson is, as much as I would not wish this fate on him, he is a coward and he should be known as one. We might forgive him, we might show him pity and mercy, but we should not forget his actions. If it eases your conscience, remember that he had the opportunity to be great. Had he simply charged into the school, he would have lived or died a hero. Few men are so blessed.
I realize this will sound terribly rough to some. It is too unkind—too insensitive. But it isn’t; it is necessary.
A man is no gentleman if he cannot shame Peterson. This is where words matter. The idea that a gentleman is gentle is wrong, insofar as it means a man is only meek, kind, and tender. Instead, a gentleman is a man whose anger is roused at the appropriate time. When circumstances do not require anger, he remains calm and tender. When they do, he become a ferocious warrior—terrifying to those things that are the enemy of the good. Remember, the rage of Achilles was the hallmark of Greek virtue for centuries. This was not because it was so monstrous and destructive, but because it was so rare and so necessary.
Civilized society requires that men retain a bit of something uncivilized inside of them at all times. There is no liberty without the right to revolution. There can be no consent of the governed if men cannot withdraw their consent. Withdrawing consent and the right to revolution require that men have the necessary virtue to return to a state of nature, often through a state of war. Likewise, there are always monsters lurking in free societies. Sometimes they do terrible things, and when they do, we need something that is scarcely compatible with civilized society.
This is the role of men in society: to keep this thing around and not let it escape. It is a terrible task with terrible consequences if we fail at it. For when we fail, children die and citizens become slaves. And so the cost of failure must also be high. When a man fails in his duty—when a coward succumbs to his deficiency—he must be shamed. As the Duke of Bourbon says in Henry V, “shame and eternal shame; nothing but shame.”
The American experience is built around the realization that courage is required. It can be seen in many places, but perhaps most notably in our depictions of the Wild West and the story of how we civilized he frontier. It is the theme of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a film about how civilized men do not have what it takes to establish, or possibly, to preserve a civilization. That task requires a special kind of man who keeps that terrible ferocity accessible in his life.
It can be found in contemporary westerns as well, most notably the great movie “Open Range,” in which there is a scene that all young boys and those who presume to be men should watch. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his sidekick Charlie Wade (Kevin Costner) confront some men who know their town is run by a tyrant but who have done nothing At first one man replies that they are just ordinary people. Wade asks him, then: “you’re men, ain’t ya?” Then a man replies that they would just be killed. To this Wade answers: “You may not know this, but there’s things that gnaw at a man worse than dyin’.”
As unpleasant as it is, we must shame Scot Peterson, so our boys learn that there are things worse than dying. The shame of cowardice must be worse than death. Peterson didn’t have to succeed. We don’t know that he would have. But what might have made him try—the spirit that might have made him charge through the door and do his duty—was the spirit that said “I’ll not be known as a coward.”
This world is fallen, and civilized life requires at least two things: courageous men and God’s help. We don’t determine God’s blessings. But we can try to be courageous and to demand courage of those around us. Scot Peterson lacked courage, and for that he should be shamed.