Monday, December 17, 2012

Die Hard as Parable; Sandy Hook as Fact

The picture at right began circulating on Facebook on Friday, hours after the Sandy Hook school shooting killed twenty children, seven adults, and the shooter. This image might reward unpacking on multiple levels, including the strategic: do we really want to permit, even invite, gun battles in elementary schools? But I’d like to consider the implicit narrative underlying this seemingly straightforward image.

John McTiernan’s 1988 classic Die Hard is a very good movie. I’ve seen it many times, and enjoy it immensely. It’s based on the myth, pervasive in American society, that the right person with the right skills in the right place can prevail against forces of unimaginable depravity. This myth contrasts with the police in this movie, whose fear of collateral damage forces them to form a perimeter and wait, helpless while the villains rack up the body count.

(Please note, when I say “myth,” I do not mean it disparagingly. Critics use the word “myth” to describe the stories we tell to make vast, complicated concepts comprehensible, and that’s my meaning here.)

This contrast strikes a chord because we’ve seen it play out. At Virginia Tech in 2007, at Columbine at 1999, even as far back as the University of Texas in 1966, the police could do no more than form a net to keep the shooters contained. Outsiders demanded that some Die Hard hero go shoot the bastard. The police demurred, however, claiming that they could not risk capturing unarmed bystanders in an uncontrolled crossfire.

Die Hard's John McClane (Bruce Willis) is more
than a movie character; he expresses core
American aspirations.
The conflict between myth and reality has come up in several recent mass shootings. The most high-profile have been the Aurora, Colorado, cinema massacre; the Clackamas, Oregon, mall shooting; and now Sandy Hook. In every situation, armchair quarterbacks have claimed that if we merely armed teachers, mall cops, and other untrained civilians, any of them could Die Hard their charges to safety, while the police sit paralyzed.

This myth wavers, however, when we look at cases where the police have tried to do more. Consider the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, when fifty Chechan insurgents took 850 theatregoers hostage. The Russian government, thirsty for victory at any cost, hit the theatre with an unknown toxic gas, then launched a full frontal assault. The police got their win, but at the cost of 130 dead hostages, an unacceptable outcome by any measure.

Thus the police have to wait, or accept direct accountability for civilian deaths. Perhaps we really would prefer if John McClane were in there with the shooter. Though heroes emerged—like teacher Victoria Soto, who protected her students by diverting the shooter, at the cost of her own life—none of them managed to stop the bloodshed, because none was equipped to confront an armed madman. Maybe one rifle on the inside could have saved lives.

Seriously? Anyone who believes that needs a refresher in the difference between fantasy and reality. Die Hard is a story. The creative team carefully gave their protagonist adequate cover, good light, excellent sight lines, and little ambiguity in identifying his enemies. That’s because, let me say again, Die Hard is a myth. It reveals fundamental truths about the human psyche in story form. It is emphatically not a primer in law enforcement technique.

Every schoolteacher, airline pilot, mall cop, and civilian with a concealed carry permit is not John McClane. Situations like Sandy Hook, Clackamas, and Aurora are not movies with directors and set dressers. Professional police and soldiers spend years training for situations like this, and even they miss more often than they hit. Do we really expect a teacher with a weekend riflery diploma to do any better?

Victoria Soto gave her life to protect her charges
at Sandy Hook, but did not engage the shooter
in a confrontation she could not win
Die Hard, besides a very good movie, is a modern parable. It stresses the importance of preparedness, determination, and refusal to quit. These are all noble traits which we hope children learn early. But just as Jesus did not mean his parables to be taken literally—the Good Samaritan is not about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, it’s about mutual responsibility—only a fool would take from Die Hard that each of us can outshoot armed criminals.

The battle has begun over what myth we take from Sandy Hook. The image above would spread a myth about action hero theatrics and preemptive violence. This misses the deeper question about why anyone considers shooting children an option. We must address the suffering underlying the violence, beforehand. Because turning elementary schools into a free-fire zone is not the myth for which we want to be known.

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