Coward? You May Never Know


I can’t stop thinking about the case of Scott Peterson, the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas High School. For 5 minutes, as shots rang out in a school building, he chose to wait outside. After 33 years as a cop, he has retired. The one word that has to be echoing in his ears is “coward.”

We all like to think that if he had acted lives would have been saved. Some say, rightly, that it was his duty. He chose to be a police officer and swore an oath to protect the innocent. Still, I wonder about the place where oaths and duty meet reality.

I read once that during the Civil War soldiers survived heated battles with muskets that had never been fired. Stranger still were tales of weapons that had ball after ball jammed down the muzzle until there was no more space to put them. The soldier had simply and robotically loaded and loaded without ever firing. From other wars, we know of accounts of men who fired their weapons but never at another human being.

A cop with that long on the force undoubtedly knew the sound of an AR15. He knew what he was up against. Outgunned. He knew what was happening in that building. And it seems pretty clear that he froze. We may discover it was fear. We may find out that he was waiting for backup, against protocol. But there it is again. Oath…Duty…Protocol. Those are abstractions, far removed from reality.

Cadet Bone Spurs, he of the 5 deferments to keep him from Viet Nam, said that Scott Peterson didn’t act because he didn’t love the kids. Nonsense. He was a commended cop who had been selected as school resource officer of the year. At the end of his career, he chose to work with kids. His commendations say he had great interpersonal skills. In short, he was exactly the type of officer that parents would be thankful to have in their kids’ school.

And when the president puffs his chest and yells “coward,” I only see a bully. It is too easy to kick a man who is prostrate on the ground. The toy soldier Cadet is man of privilege, who avoided his moment to be tested. He lost his right to judge Scott Peterson.

There is a difference between a protector and a warrior. That’s something we should keep in mind with all this talk of armed teachers. It seems clear that Peterson, based on his choices, saw himself as a protector. He was good at it. But it is entirely different to be a warrior, the type of person who is willing to give their life for another and kill another human being. Most police officers can go an entire career without using their weapon. But for the grace of god, they will never have to know what they would have done in Scott Peterson’s 5 minutes outside that building.

Fear is tricky. Sometimes people take the mental strain and physical effects of fear and rise to heights of action and courage. Other people do seemingly stupid things that in the moment they thought were essential self-preservation. We are designed to survive.  Fear is the great equalizer. None of us know for sure how we would act when faced by the final sacrifice. We’d like to think we would rise to the occasion. History tells us that isn’t how it works out for many people.

Was Scott Peterson a coward? I can’t be that judge. He seems like a man who has lived a good life and will now have to live the horror of a fatal decision. His fate is a very human one. For that I can only have compassion.


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