Thursday, June 21, 2007

A reflection on bravery and heroes

Melbourne is still reeling from the news of Monday morning's events where a man was shot dead when he went to help a woman being attacked by another man. A number of city buildings were 'locked down' as police made an intensive search of surrounding city blocks for the attacker. The news has been full of the details of the incident, as well as the background of most of the people involved, but I thought it worth while to repeat the reported details of what happened to set the context for this post and for the benefit of non-Melbourne readers.

Brendan Keilar, a 43-year-old city solicitor, was shot dead when he and another man (a 25-year-old Dutch backpacker) tried to intervene when they saw the woman being being dragged by her hair by a young man at the busy city intersection of William Street and Flinders Lane. It was about 8.20 am, pretty much peak hour traffic in the city.

According to reports, when the two men approached the man allegedly attacking the woman, he pulled out a gun and shot all three of them – point-blank. Brendan Keilar died at the scene – though paramedics tried to save his life, (as this eyewitness blog account attests). The 24-year-old woman, who was shot in the abdomen, is in hospital in a 'serious but stable condition', while the young man had been shot in the upper body and has apparently regained consciousness after being in a 'critical' condition.

Police now allege that the man who attacked the woman and shot all three, and had seriously attacked another woman some minutes earlier, is a 29-year-old member of the Hells Angel bikie gang. Both women were known to the man. Police hunted for him until he reportedly surrendered himself to police yesterday afternoon. He has been remanded in custody.

Much media attention has gone to the person who allegedly did the shootings. Some attention has gone to what kind of man Brendan Keilar was, that he should have gone to the help of someone and put his life at risk. It is the later that has really got me thinking the last three days.

The media pretty immediately hailed Keilar as a hero, with Melbourne's daily tabloid now inviting its readers to send their 'messages of support' to the heroes – and presumably Keilar's family.

I have no desire to be disrespectful to Brendan Keilar or his family, who are going through a deep, deep grief. Three children have lost their father and a woman her husband. I am wondering though – and this is pure speculation on my part – that for however much it may be comforting to think that their father/husband lost his life as a hero, that they may, deep inside, wish that he hadn't been one, that he hadn't gone to help that woman, that he had just dialled '000' from a safe distance, for he is now lost to them forever.

Why? Why did Brendan Keilar risk so much, risk ever seeing his children again, to go to the aid of a total stranger? Of course, one comment that kept emerging when the news broke – especially from bystanders – was that when people woke up that Monday morning and went to work, they certainly didn't expect to face this situation. There was that overwhelming, harrowing sense of pure chance – who would have expected such a thing to happen in Melbourne, of all places, and for it to end that way?

If this were New York, Los Angeles, Baghdad, Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, I believe people's responses to such an incident would be markedly different – locals of those cities would probably immediately assume that an attacker would have a gun in the first place. Not so Melbourne.

Many, many people do brave things – some of them stupid things. Many take calculated risks in their responses to situations that call on them to act altruistically. They assess situations well beforehand, understand the risks involved, train to deal with them or avoid them, and go into situations with a clear sense of purpose. Foremost in my mind are the volunteer firefighters (CFA) who bravely fought Victoria's raging bush fires last summer – for no remuneration. Others include metro firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers, emergency and relief workers, the police and military.

In my mind, the CFA volunteers are truly heroic because while they understand the risks, they also know what's at stake if they don't act. Many of them probably wouldn't agree they're 'heroes', and think they're just doing the right thing.

I wonder if Keilar thought very much about what he was getting himself into before he stepped forward to intervene. Perhaps, if his background were criminal law, he thought he had enough understanding of and experience dealing with violent people to be able to defuse the situation until help arrived – an approach many others may share. Perhaps he was spurred by a strong sense of injustice to see a young woman being attacked – after all, for the last two generations men have been asked to not look away from other men's violence against women. Refusing to be silent is now expected of any commonly decent person.

Maybe Keilar did exactly what he would want any other man to do if they saw his own daughters, son, or wife being hurt. That can be a very strong driver for action.

Sometimes, doing the decent thing may not have been the best thing to do at the time. I'm not even sure that it is the right thing to do. But it is a compelling motivation for many people.

Some people don't think about it too much when they act bravely. Perhaps it seemed the natural thing to do. I've heard a man who rushed into a burning house to save children trapped in it tell reporters, on his being awarded a bravery medal, that he didn't think about it. He just did it because he was there. And that he would do it again if necessary. Perhaps not knowing everything that could go wrong helps that.

On the radio this morning I heard that a media outlet's poll of its readers, asking whether they would go to the aid of strangers after what happened on Monday, showed that over 70% of the few hundred or so respondents said they would. Many people want to do the decent thing, and hope that other people will act decently.

But I think many of us really wonder, when we hear of such incidents as Monday's, whether we would act the same way: step up to the plate and do what's necessary. It is something that we really want to believe about ourselves, but when we start thinking about it too much we wonder if we would. Or could.

I think that's why people like Brendan Keilar are our heroes. Because they could. And did.

So, with respect, I think Tina Turner is wrong after all.

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