The Virginia Tech massacre has spawned countless questions: Everything from why would student Cho Seung-hui gun down 32 fellow human beings, to why was campus security not able to prevent him from committing the deadliest mass-shooting in U.S. history.
Three of the questions – all related – posed to me have been: Why didn’t some of the students rush Cho? Why didn’t someone tackle and disarm him? Where were the likes of those brave souls of United Flight 93 who made the decision to “Let’s Roll” on September 11, 2001?
First, to the third question: The brave souls were there at Virginia Tech, and they rose to the occasion on April 16, 2007. But like those of Flight 93, bravery wasn’t enough.
Now to the first two questions: It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback about what any one of us would have done in similar circumstances. It amazes me the number of people who have told me, they “would have rushed Cho.” And they “would not have just sat there and let him do what he did.”
But make no mistake, no one really knows what they will do under fire, until they are in fact under fire. And like all combat actions, there are tactical variables at play that often carry more weight than any combination of courage, quickness, and reason ever will. Not that C,Q, and R don’t matter: They do, and lives are nearly always saved because of them. But they are usually not enough to save everyone in the face of a determined killer or killers.
Let’s consider a few of those tactical variables in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre.
Aside from being armed with two (easily reloadable) semi-automatic pistols with plenty of ammunition, the shooter, Cho, had countless advantages as he entered each classroom:
1) Cho possessed the elements of both surprise and shock: The latter includes terror, which can in many instances physically, mentally, and emotionally paralyze the victims.
2) Cho was in close-enough quarters – with few exits – that his victims would have found it extremely difficult to escape: In fact, he was – in many cases – positioned in front of the only door in a given classroom.
3) In almost every classroom, Cho’s field of fire would have been between 45 and 90-degree angles, affording him complete coverage of every space in the room at any one moment.
4) Cho’s victims would have had no cover (physical protection from Cho’s bullets) and virtually no concealment at any time during the attack.
5) The small, terrible space between the doorway - which Cho would have entered with guns blazing – and the groupings of desks where the victims would have been sitting, would have been the deadliest space in the room. For a student to rush Cho, the student would have had to immediately overcome the shock of the attack, unhesitatingly bolt from his or her desk, and charge exposed and unarmed directly across the deadliest space in the room to the source of the killings. This would have been a wholly unnatural act for anyone (I’ll explain this in a moment), yet we may never know if one or two victims actually did do this.
6) The charging, unarmed student would have had no way of knowing whether or not there were more unseen gunmen following behind the visible shooter, Cho.
7) Cho was a fanatic, and prepared to die in his own attack.
8) Most of the victims were young, and probably none of them had any combat training, much less experience under fire: The exception being Dr. Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor who sacrificed himself for his students.
Twenty-five years ago as a Marine infantryman, I remember my squad constantly running immediate action drills: the actions taken in response to an ambush while on patrol.
We were always taught to counterattack directly in the face of the ambush, quickly closing the gap between us and the enemy, and in doing so, attempt to gain fire superiority by shooting back.
We practiced the immediate action drills over-and-over for two reasons. First, if in the event of an actual ambush we were to have sought cover or attempted to run (the natural human reaction), we would have been shot to pieces and the squad probably wiped out. Second, if we didn’t practice the immediate action drills until they became instinctive responses to an ambush, we – just like any other human beings – would instinctively run, seek cover, or hit the deck. And we were U.S. Marines, so there was never a dearth of courage or aggressiveness.
Which brings me back to the students and faculty at Virginia Tech who fell victim to Cho.
They died not because they were too afraid to act. In fact, the heroics of many of them already have been chronicled. More stories of heroism in the face of unequivocal horror will surely surface in the coming weeks and months. And most likely some of the stories of the greatest courage died with the victims before they could be told.
It’s amazing what good men and women are capable of doing in the most desperate moments of life and death. It’s even more amazing how people measure up to a task, even when they are not prepared to do so.
But the odds were against the victims at Virginia Tech. Under the circumstances, they did all they could to survive and help their fellow students and professors. But it wasn’t enough; it never will be against a determined killer like Cho.
And, as retired Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton told me in an interview for National Review Online’s The Tank, “Thank God, he [Cho] didn’t have guns staged all over the place. The losses would have been even higher.”