“Get Him On The Ground!” – How Human Nature & Fear Overcome Law & Order

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It was the summer of 2019, and I was walking through the Baltimore airport as the chaperone to a caravan of eight teenagers. My mission was to get them safely from a convention in Baltimore to Detroit. That was not a particularly challenging mission. The teens were generally well-behaved, and the leader among them is one of the most responsible teenagers I have met in my life.

We got through the check-in process and airport security without a hassle. Then, with about an hour to go until our boarding process began, four of the eight went to find lunch. The rest of us sat by the gate, waiting patiently to get home. I pulled out a book and my notepad; I get most of my reading done while traveling. Some of my caravan watched Netflix on their phones and one dozed off beside me, headphones in their ears.

Active Shooter Training

A week or two prior, during an employee meeting at my place of work, a specialist came in to provide active shooter training. It is similar to what takes place in schools across the country. In the case that a person who wishes to harm others enters our office, we were instructed to follow a tried and true formula to safety:

  • Run
  • Hide
  • Fight

If, once alarmed of a shooter, we cannot run, then our next priority is to hide – barricading ourselves in to an enclosed space if possible. Such action saved dozens of lives during the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 (my first year of college). But hiding is not always an option. In those cases, we fight.

The word of advice from our trainer was to keep something heavy nearby. Throwing an object worth dodging at the shooter can provide a spare moment to escape or take them down. Some teachers, our trainer said, ask all students to bring a can of food to class. The teacher uses the cans throughout the year to help with math problems (or something), but the students know during practice drills to grab their can, then hide. Any active shooter will have trouble facing a barrage of tin-canned goods.

“Get Him On The Ground!”

After twenty-ish minutes of reading, I heard a man one or two gates away shout, “Get him on the ground!” I could not see where he was, or what was happening, but the next few moments were terrifying. Fear rippled out from the shouting; the crowd immediately whipped into a panic. Travelers began sprinting away from the noise, some rushed the doors to the jet bridges, setting off alarms throughout the terminal.

I sat, stunned, book in hand, and then remembered that I was in charge of eight lives, four of which were somewhere away from me. “Shiiiiiit,” I thought. What was I do to?

A mother to my right pulled both her children out of their stroller, laid them on the ground, and covered them with her body. The students next to me ducked under their chairs or bags, too; I locked eyes with one or two.

“There’s no point in running on to a jet bridge,” I thought – it would be a dead end, like shooting fish in a barrel. (It had not crossed my mind that most connect to the tarmac outside.) There was almost no cover, and no way to barricade an entire terminal. So, book in hand, I looked in the direction of the commotion, ready to throw whatever I had at whomever was trying to take my life and the lives of those around me.

The Fear Response

You probably never heard of the 2019 shooter who made it through the airport security in Baltimore. That is because there was no shooter.

Someone started to suffer from a seizure, scaring those around him and compelling another to yell, “Get him on the ground!” It is a standard practice to, if safe, assist someone suffering an epileptic fit to a place or position where they cannot hurt themselves or others. But human nature does not respond well to commotion.

It all seemed silly once this fact was made clear to all in the terminal. The mother to my right laugh-cried along with her children, relieved to live another day. Those who had set off alarms by running through the jet bridges returned to their seats. Medics attended to the man who experienced the epileptic episode.

The four lunch goers returned, having experienced none of the commotion, and the rest of my caravan joked about how I sat, motionless, throughout it all. I shared what went through my head during the panic, but the experience opened my eyes to the vulnerability of human/animal nature.

Rules Written for Utopia

What would have stopped a person with a gun in an airport terminal? Maryland law dictates that a person must have a permit to purchase or carry a handgun. Its lawmakers have restricted magazine capacities and passed a red-flag law, depriving those deemed mentally ill or dangerous of the legal right to bear arms.

But people get through the cracks, we all know this. Laws are not foolproof; they are simply meant to make rational people believe that the cost of breaking a law is greater than the benefit. Things happen; however, and we must be prepared to act in such cases. Beyond that, we must recognize and accept that context affects behavior.

Responding to an active shooter in an airport terminal – a wide, open space with little other than chairs to serve as protection – is different than doing so at a school, where doors can lock or be blocked. A shooter at a gun show could be stopped in an instant, as demonstrated by this ridiculous scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (The show is crass, so, uh, language warning?):

Context is Key

I am not here to share opinions related to firearm laws (put the pitchforks down, heathens). All I mean to say is that context matters. Where a shooter chooses to do his or her damage is as important a decision as their weapon of choice. An airport terminal, thanks to security, is laughably defenseless IF someone were to make it through with a weapon.

“A general, context-independent rule for punishment severity is hard to establish.”

“Insomnia, hunger, the aftermath of an argument, a hangover, a bad day at work – any of these things singly can make a person unreasonable, while in combination they can produce something dangerous.”

Jordan Peterson in “12 Rules for Life” (pages 136 & 142 respectively)

Anxious Men In High Pressure Situations

People, even health gurus, are not always consistent in how they feel or care for themselves. Some are better at powering through or recovering from low points, but that is not an equally accessible life skill. Rationality is not as permanent as the academics touting zero-tolerance policies would have us believe.

So we cannot expect that all people will act responsibly at all times. Hell, even Betty White gets “hangry” without a Snickers. When we merely pass a rule and hope that others permanently alter their mood or behavior, we leave ourselves open to panic if turds hit the fan. When that rule is “zero-tolerance,” it becomes context-independent. The greatest threat to the effectiveness of a good rule is a bad or unenforceable rule.

This applies to any of the behavioral issues facing social fraternities and society as a whole. No one should expect that a person with a gun would appear in an airport terminal. We pay nearly $8 billion in taxes for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to assure us of that. But what if the TSA failed? How many people would have died, lacking a way to escape, a place to hide, or a belief that a barrage of books could temporarily overwhelm a lone gunner?

Are You Prepared To Stop Hazing, Or Merely Threatened To Report It After The Fact?

I was thankful for our active shooter training, even though there was not an actual shooter on that summer day. Having done absolutely nothing but sit in stunned silence, I still felt accomplished to think through the situation – ready to rip the face off of a shooter like a mad chimpanzee.

Unfortunately, our students are not prepared to address behavioral issues. They are, instead, encouraged and threatened not to haze, and to shame those who suggest context-dependent penalties.

Blanket zero-tolerance policies and sanctions such as expulsion or chapter re-organizations are all after-the-fact responses. They require an act of hazing or sexual abuse to take place to demonstrate the validity of the rule – an unfortunate, dangerous irony.

How are we teaching students to react in the moment? How are we assuring them that they have options to stop and prevent harm to others? No matter the scale or situation, any report of substance misuse, hazing, or predatory behavior is met with (increasing) penalties. There are a shrinking number of [legal] options for those who wish to reverse or stop such behaviors as they occur while maintaining their fraternity experience.

Recognizing Reality

That is why I oppose broad, zero-tolerance policies and why I critique them time and time again (to the dismay of several, formerly friendly “hazing prevention experts”).

Students do not operate within a bubble. They are not always in good spirits, well cared for, or properly socialized. We must understand this to prevent harm to the students. Our current policy only prevents harm to inter/national fraternity corporations and college administrators (“Big Fraternity”).

A driver with a spotless record may speed or run off the road without proper sleep or if he’s late to an appointment. Who is to say that a sleep-deprived, hungover college student will act in perfect accordance with the policies of his school, state, and fraternity? Furthermore, how are we contributing to his poor condition and are we aware of it?

Leadership In Action

If we wish to improve behavior, we must help students overcome what leads to such behavior. That doesn’t happen when we pass rules which belittle their intelligence, or when we make criminals of the unwell. Instead, we fraternity leaders must pay attention to context and broaden our range of responses.

That is not a “relaxed” approach to serious matters of life or death. It is a rational approach. One which compels us to pay better attention to who is joining our fraternities instead of worrying about them after a terrible situation has occurred. It encourages us not to compound the pressure faced by college students through time and cash-consuming “standards” checklists which offer no or little post-graduate value.

Our rules create more questions than answers, and they do not address the root of our behavioral issues. No one hazes or drinks underage because it is legal. Students do not break rules because they are criminals. They do all of those things because of the context of their personal situation, mixed with the situation of their group, their school, their community, and society as a whole.

Those leaders who ignore the shortcomings of human nature keep their followers blind, ignorant, and vulnerable.