Are You a Coward?

That oath did not spare the lives of some officers who failed to live up to it. I will refrain from listing their names herein as they have already paid the ultimate price for their reticence to do what obviously had to be done.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

There are some blogs I am tempted to go back and revise as I see fit. That lend themselves to review and reconsideration. This will be one of them.

I know this because I know going into it that I will not do justice to the subject at hand—cowardice—despite being well versed in the matter. It is also because like so many things in life, my take on the matter is subject to change.

When I was young, I had a more clear definition of what cowardice was.

The guys who ran north of the border during the Vietnam War? Cowards.

Guys like me who lay in bed at night worrying that the following day would be the one that their bully would make good on their threats? Cowards.

As I got older, I saw that cowardice took many forms. There were spiritual, political, and intellectual cowards. Ethical weaklings and fair weather grandstanders, too. There were questionable calls by lily-livered refs on the field and gutless decisions in our court rooms. There was a plethora of yellow-bellied examples from which to draw upon.

Conversely, I also saw clear-cut evidence of courage. Kids that didn't have a chance—perhaps operating under the influence of dangerously promoted pap such as "all bullies are cowards"—would stand up to their tormentors with predictable results; people whose phobias might have otherwise deterred their explorations would momentarily overcome them to race into a burning building or scale some height to rescue other people.

This was to be expected, for like "good" and "evil," neither cowardice nor courage can exist without the other.

But I also saw that just as what constituted "good" or "evil" could sometimes become subject to debate, the line between courage and cowardice sometimes blurred in the minds of others. That the whistle-blowing Serpico or the Pentagon Papers-exposing Ellsberg might be as apt to be labeled a "snitch" as a "hero."

Within the law enforcement arena, there is perhaps no greater sin that that of cowardice. I have, on occasion, heard a cop speak admiringly of a corrupt peer. Never have I seen a cop envy another whose actions resulted in his being labeled a "coward."

An exchange of comments on my Facebook page in the aftermath of a recent “Shots Fired” got me thinking about the yin/yang notions of courage and cowardice.

I have made a point in rarely criticizing officers for their actions during a firefight. Until I was in one, I never knew how I would act. And even now, I would not know how I would act if I had to face that danger again.

Someone once observed that "today's hero could be tomorrow's coward." When I repeated the sentiment, Mark Rich called me on it. Having himself been in multiple shootings, Rich did not see how that could be true; at the very least, how any agency could allow such a thing to transpire.

But the fact is that an agency may be powerless to stop such an event from occurring.

Lord Chesterfield touched on this when he observed, "I am convinced that a light supper, a good night's sleep, and a fine morning, have sometimes made a hero of the same man, who, by an indigestion, a restless night, and rainy morning, would have proved a coward."

One doesn't know when an in opportune suggestion - "He can't rack a round in that shotgun", some of the last words heard by West Covina Officer Ken Wrede regarding a suspect's ability to engage a police shotgun - or PTSD might inhibit an officer's response. When his contemplation of some less lethal and less appropriate use of force option can get the better of him.

Outside of certain professions, I don't think someone's inability or unwillingness to kill another human being is necessarily deemed an act of cowardice. I would be hard-pressed to call military conscientious objectors like Desmond Thomas Doss, Thomas W. Bennett, and Joseph G. LaPointe cowards.

But unlike the military, which recognized these deserving Medal of Honor recipients, law enforcement does not lend itself to the accommodation of conscientious objectors in its ranks. It cannot afford them a role wherein they can refrain from possibly taking a life with a clear conscience. And an officer is not drafted into public service. He or she volunteers for it, and takes a sacred oath thereafter. The person taking that oath knows that to honor it he or she may be obligated to take a human life.

That oath did not spare the lives of some officers who failed to live up to it. I will refrain from listing their names herein as they have already paid the ultimate price for their reticence to do what obviously had to be done. But I will use their examples as cautionary parables in the hopes that if there is any cop out there now who believes deep down in his heart that he cannot kill a human being when the circumstances demand it, he is doing his community, his peers, his family and himself the greatest disservice.

My dad used to get choked up reading "the Last Letters From Stalingrad.," and I would find him blubbering at the table. I found it an incongruous image as I'd never seen him back down from a man. I asked him why he would cry for these German soldiers, particularly as he was an ardent fan of the Jewish people. He said that he saw no contradiction in being able to appreciate courage however and wherever it was manifested, and when he happened upon its example in instances that so clearly transcended anything that he could ever imagine, he could only be overwhelmed by it.

For a long time I wasn't sure what he meant until I started to read books like "Black Hawk Down," and other chronicles of "against all odds" heroes. Today, I still get misty-eyed listening to the words of officers whose adventures I detail in my "Shots Fired" columns.

Deep down, I suspect that most men possess some intuitive sense of what their limitations may be even if they don't always make a point of broadcasting them. In my case, I knew my limitations early on. Not cut out to be a team player, and lacking the physical or mental fortitude necessary to be a SWAT member, I never entertained the fantasy. And even if some might then argue that I therefore had no business being a cop, I still felt that there was a role that I could play within the law enforcement community, and that I would not hesitate to kill if it meant my life or someone else's. In 25 years, I honored that expectation of myself.

This is not to say that I have a clear-cut definitions of "courage" and "cowardice" these days. I know that the former is a lot closer to the almost nihilistic heroism of Audie Murphy than the "second wind" of the soldier who cowered in "Saving Private Ryan." And while I thought I possessed the necessary courage to fight for our country, I now believe that if armed with the knowledge that I have now of the Vietnam War and what its chief escalator Robert McNamara had to say about it, I might well have been right there with those other "cowards" running north of the border.

But for purposes of this blog, I will offer a definition of each.

Recognizing that you are incapable of taking a human life when circumstances clearly demand it and doing something constructive to mitigate that threat to your family, your peers, your community, and yourself—that's courage.

Recognizing as much and gambling that you can go into the field without doing something about it? That's cowardice.

And a damned selfish one, at that.

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