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Should cowardice be criminalized?
It is impossible to ignore the degeneracy within American society that seems to hang like a toxic cloud over the country, strangling the worthy virtues. Beneath the cloud there is a vast darkness and the entangled blooms of a poisoned garden in which greed, cowardice, arrogance, cruelty and rage have smothered the concepts of duty, responsibility and patriotism. The essential values that sustain a noble civilization in the “crowded hours” are not abstractions anymore than are the water and atmosphere that sustain life on earth. The American civilization is inexorably connected with the ideals of the “Great Republic,” which are the life blood of our democracy. It safeguards human dignity, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the American people.
Courage and cowardice are innate aspects of human character and have been written about together since the beginning of time. A society cannot survive without courage. It will perish. There are two types of courage — moral and physical — and they are usually paired, but not always. Physical courage does not preclude moral cowardice, and moral courage does not preclude physical cowardice.
The distinctions and contradictions that abound around any honest discussion of courage and cowardice are not a terrific fit in this moment of national idiocy. We live in a time in which an appreciation for complexity has become an increasingly alien concept within a society that is growing ever more strident, ignorant and intolerant of almost everything. Gene Hackman described the distinction between cowardice and courage like this:
The difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways.
C.S. Lewis put it this way:
We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.
Sometimes there is no ambiguity around an act of cowardice. There are occasions where its stench and rot can permeate any barrier because the act is so clear, so obvious and so transparent.
The highest levels of American politics, media, and business are saturated by moral cowards. They are everywhere, and within the MAGA/GOP, they are nearly universal. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Ronna McDaniel, Elise Stefanik, and Marco Rubio are just a small handful of names from a vast sea of cowardice. Everywhere someone dares look at the top of American society — where the power and money are concentrated —there is an epidemic of moral cowardice. The examples are endless.
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Physical cowardice is the rarer and more exclusive of the two types because the opportunities for testing are limited and often spontaneous. Yet, recent years have put forward two pristine examples. The first is an individual act of astounding cowardice, while the second is the greatest collective act of mass cowardice in American history. Both acts occurred at school shootings, and involved law enforcement officers.
The first indisputable act of cowardice concerned the reprehensible conduct of Scot Peterson, a Broward County sheriff’s deputy, assigned to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty were slaughtered and 17 wounded by a mass killer. Peterson crouched in fear for more than 48 minutes, and did not engage the killer. He failed his duty, responsibilities and his oath. He was derelict. Without question he is a coward who shamed and dishonored himself. He did not measure up in his “crowded hour,” but is he a criminal?
The second act of cowardice, which stands as the greatest act of mass cowardice in American history, concerns the most corrupt law enforcement department in the United States: the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Department in Texas. It has obstructed the details of its cowardice from becoming public at every conceivable turn with the help of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The basic details are not in dispute.
Scores of sheriff’s deputies and police sat outside the school for one hour and 14 minutes in absolute safety, while the rampaging mass killer inside slaughtered 19 students, two faculty and wounded 17 others. These men and women, like Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson, are indisputably cowards. But are they criminals?
According to the Broward County prosecutors in Florida, the answer is that they are.
Jury selection began yesterday in the Peterson trial, marking the rare prosecution of a law enforcement officer over his response to a mass shooting. Peterson, who retired from the Broward Sheriff’s Office as scrutiny of his conduct during the February 2018 shooting mounted, has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, including seven counts of felony child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury in connection with the shooting and statements he made afterward.
Peterson, 60, failed to follow his training by remaining behind a position of cover for 48 minutes, prosecutors say, while the 19-year-old shooter roamed the school halls on his killing rampage.
Peterson was widely criticized after authorities revealed he had been armed but stayed outside. At the time, Donald Trump said, “When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened, but he certainly did a poor job. There’s no question about that.”
Peterson has maintained he did nothing wrong. He has claimed that he didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from, and couldn’t have engaged the shooter in time to protect the victims. His attorneys wrote that “there was no duty on the part of Peterson to protect the victims.”
Let me be clear again. He did do something wrong and he absolutely had a moral duty. He failed. But again, is the failure a criminal act that should be punished with up to 100 years in jail? Should his weakness be criminalized? Should his shame? His cowering? Should the answer be “yes, we had best get busy building new prisons” because there is no shortage of cowards to lock up if we are going to start prosecuting shame and dishonor?
Some say that Americans no longer share anything in common with each other, but that isn’t true. We are all in danger from the next mass killer and the next 100 after that who will be armed with a military-grade weapon. This evil can present itself at any moment in any place in America from the elementary school to the church to the synagogue to the mosque to the army base, hospital, workplace, highway or music concert. What exactly are the rules of engagement to be?
I disdain former deputy Peterson’s cowardice and dishonor. Yet, this prosecution more than worries me because it opens a Pandora’s box of potential abuse. Do we really want to start criminalizing character defects in America even when they are the most loathsome examples that can be found? Scot Peterson chose to do nothing. His shame will be eternal. I just wonder who it is that gets to sit in ultimate judgment. This is a jurisdictional issue worth pondering.