Every person who watched American Sniper remembers the “sheepdog speech.” A young Chris Kyle sits at dinner with his family, his brother’s eyes obviously blackened. As his father starts speaking, the camera flashes back to a playground fight. Chris’s brother is on the ground, getting punched over and over again by a bully — until Chris steps in to deliver his brother’s tormentor a fearful beating. In voiceover, Chris’s father delivers lines that young men in the military have heard for generations. There are three kinds of people in this world, he says — sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep “prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in this world.” The wolves “use violence to prey on the weak.” The sheepdogs are “blessed with the gift of aggression” and possess an “overpowering need to protect the flock.” These men are the “rare breed” who “live to confront the wolf.”
It’s an undeniably powerful moment, one that encapsulates the deepest feelings of many of our bravest men — the men who lay down their lives for their country. But as I watched, I realized it was incomplete. Sheepdogs should not be rare. Indeed, every able-bodied man has a duty to protect the weak and the vulnerable, a duty that cannot and should not be delegated to the “rare breed.” Otherwise, people can suffer and die — people who could have been saved.
I thought of this speech — and a man’s duty to protect — when I saw the recent, horrific story of a fatal murder on the Washington Metro. As the young victim, Kevin Joseph Sutherland, was stabbed again and again and again, his fellow passengers remained “huddled at both ends of the car,” watching but doing nothing to intervene.
We no longer raise boys to be men. We no longer teach them from a young age that they must not tolerate others preying on the weak and the vulnerable.
Sutherland’s experience was not, apparently, atypical. It prompted Marianne Seregi, an art director at Washington Post Magazine, to share the awful story of her own prolonged assault on the subway. Seregi’s attackers didn’t brandish a single knife or other weapon. But no man intervened to stop them, either. In fact, the man sitting directly in front of her “never turned around.” The only person who did anything was a “petite” young woman who ineffectually yelled for the attackers to “cut it out.” Seregi still feels “lingering fury” that no one helped, but she’s honest enough to acknowledge that — had the tables been turned — she may not have had the courage to help, either. Courage, after all, isn’t easy.
Some people, however, are content with cowardice. On reddit, one male passenger recounts holding Sutherland as he died:
What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant. I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won. It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help, and would have been stabbed.
Writing in The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson rightly calls it “beta male rationalizing at its finest.” But rather than shunning him, commenter after reddit commenter tells him he did the right thing, even sympathetically urging him to get counseling because the poor dear witnessed something so horrific.
If I responded the same way that man did, I would also need counseling — not because I had seen a terrible thing, but because I had failed so horribly in my most basic duty to my fellow man. I would find it hard to live with myself. In a moment of ultimate crisis, that person looked deep inside and discovered that he was not, in fact, a man. Given the fear, given the ultimate stakes, failure is understandable. It is not, however, excusable.
But then again, we shouldn’t be surprised. We no longer raise boys to be men. We no longer teach them from a young age that they must not tolerate others preying on the weak and the vulnerable. We teach them that aggression is always and everywhere bad, to look for authority figures to set things right, and thus the single-best thing they can do in a crisis is find someone to tell. We raise people to be sheep, to delegate their bodily security — and the bodily security of their friends and neighbors — to that “rare breed,” the sheepdog. In fact, that’s what the police said in D.C.
We asked the police if we could/should have done something differently, and they said that we did the right thing — get to safety and get help (well, I guess my wife did the right thing, I’m kind of a dumbass). On top of that, they said to focus on remembering everything you can about the assailant.
While no one can predict what they would do in a crisis, preparation and training matter. I’m trying to teach my own son to protect others, and I was proud when his first (and so far only) playground scrap was an intervention on behalf of a bullied kid. I’ve been proud when he’s done even the smallest things, like stand up to the silly online abuse that’s so common with today’s youth. These are the building blocks that a father hopes will prepare a boy to be a man when it counts.
I say all of these things fully cognizant that no one can know their true nature until they’re tested. Military history is littered with tales of gallant barracks warriors who ultimately ran from the sound of gunfire. But knowing what’s right is the first step to doing what’s right, and when it comes to a crisis, a real man’s definition of success is not “I lived” but rather “I fought.” On the D.C. Metro, no one fought for Kevin Sutherland. No one fought for Marianne Seregeti. And if we keep raising boys to be sheep, no one will fight for the next victim, either. Instead, they’ll do what they were taught to do — tell the authorities, hold the dying, and cry on their therapist’s couch.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.