For the day after a massacre, it was a magnificent day here in the environs of Southern California. So clear the panorama could hurt your eyes. Cool, windy and crisp. If those of us who suffer from terminal allergies didn’t know better, it could have passed for a picture perfect fall day.
I had business in downtown L.A. today. And, as I so often do on such occasions, I made a point of visiting my alma mater, the University of Southern California. Class was in session as things wind down to yet another commencement, and by all accounts, today was just another day among the next generation of movers and shakers.
I suppose everyone takes pride in their alma mater. And I am by no means an objective observer when it comes to USC. My heart bleeds Cardinal and Gold. But for all that, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, there is something special about the place. Always has been. It’s simply a cut above and a breed apart when it comes to major four-year institutions.
Why is this so? Well, in recent years, under the leadership university president Dr. Steven Sample, the admissions standards have been ratcheted up to the point where the university is literally on par with the Ivy League. SC is considered a major competitor for top students with Stanford, Berkeley and UCLA, not to mention the aforementioned east coast institutions. Many of us aging, gray-bearded alumni would be in for a rude awakening if we had to meet the admissions standards of today as opposed to those of years ago.
But then, USC held the same mystique generations ago, when the entrance requirements were not nearly as stringent, and the academic reputation of the university, while respectable, was hardly among the academic elite. Throughout its history, there has existed a level of respect for the University of Southern California and its graduates among business institutions, fellow academicians, professionals of various stripes and the public at large. And this respect goes far beyond the momentary success of the football team.
Why is this so? Let me posit an explanation.
Many institutions attract brilliant students. Many of them do exemplary academic work, and go on to have very successful careers and many diverse areas of activity. Certainly, academic coursework is the spine of any university program. And that goes for USC as well. But while academics may be the spine of any such institution, there is another quality that is its heart and soul: Leadership.
And while many universities do a superb job of educating students, USC is in the business of training leaders. And that’s what sets it apart.
Over the years, by design or accident, the University of Southern California has attracted its share of students with leadership potential. Dynamic, talented young people with a vision for the future just tend to gravitate toward the place. And there is an important distinction between what the student brings to the experience, and what the university offers in return.
USC cannot and does not teach leadership skills. That is a quality that the student must possess going in. But what it can and does offer is to hone those leadership skills to a fine edge. USC is not the place for directionless young people to find themselves. It is a place where students with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish in life can develop the tools to get the job done.
The university experience is not merely an exercise in academic activity, however demanding. Students are expected to overcome obstacles that the faculty and administration put in their path. And some of those obstacles can be extreme. There is a genuine culling out process that goes on during the educational experience at USC. Because if a student cannot deal with the hardships imposed in an academic setting, they certainly will not be able to overcome them in the real world.
We’re not talking about turning out a generation of clock-punching 9-to-5ers. We’re talking about producing a crop of leaders, who will assume responsibility for seizing the world, molding it, changing it, and leading it into the future. There’s a reason why the top graduates of the University of Southern California occupy such positions of influence and power in so many diverse fields of activity. This is it.
We’re talking about a boot camp for life.
Some of you are no doubt wondering what this over-the-top, fat cat, alum is doing pounding his chest about his alma mater. I’m getting to it.
I couldn’t walk the grounds of USC today without thinking about the horrendous incident at Virginia Tech yesterday. It would have been impossible on any campus, and I daresay anyone who spent time at any university this day was plagued with the same predicament.
I further wondered what would happen if some murderous maniac with an arsenal made his way into Bovard Hall, or the Doheny library complex or Seaver Science Center or anyplace else USC students gather, chained the doors shut and went classroom to classroom gunning them down. How would things have been different? Would things have been different?
I confess to knowing nothing about Virginia Tech except it seems to be primarily an engineering school, and they have a sometimes nationally-ranked football team. That’s it. And while the campus, I’m sure, is not exclusively composed of tech-oriented students, many such campuses tend to take on the character of their dominant programs.
Speaking as a reformed techie, I can say with authority that we tend to feel comfortable in an environment of linear goals and tight discipline, with clearly defined objectives that can be addressed in a logical, direct manner. We like it when the trains run on time. And we tend to be detail-oriented. These qualities do not disqualify us when it comes to leadership, but it does make the transition to such positions more elusive and the process by which we attain them a greater stretch.
I mention this because I wonder why, considering the acts of murder were committed by a lone gunman (so far as we know) that someone, anyone, didn’t recognize what was happening and take action to stop it?
Easy for me to say, sitting here in my den, cranking out yet another exercise in verbosity at my keyboard. Well not really. I am fully prepared to admit that it is virtually impossible for the human psyche to make such a radical transition from the inherently safe environment of a peaceful classroom to the mass terror of a deadly killing field and do it instantaneously. Combat soldiers, who are experienced, trained and accustomed to warfare have a hard time doing it. This is why the ambush is so deadly, and properly coordinated, used with such devastating effect.
So, if combat infantrymen have a hard time adapting to the instantaneous transition to a firefight, how much harder would it be for college students – who are accustomed to nothing of the kind – to shift gears so radically and quickly as to accurately evaluate their situation and take immediate, and quite probably suicidal, action to put a stop to it.
It would be virtually impossible.
So, I’m not blaming the innocent victims for being innocent victims. Seung-Hui Cho had the advantage of all those who lie in ambush. Surprise, ruthlessness, and the relentless mentality of a cold-blooded killer. He was a wolf among sheep, a predator among the flock, and if he didn’t give his soul to Satan in a literal sense, those who watched his video can certainly better appreciate the concept that darkness is really the absence of light. There was no light in his soul. And those he encountered yesterday were cannon fodder.
And yet. . . and yet. . . You would think there would be one, just one, who, in the instant of recognition could have taken the initiative, taken heart, and taken this SOB out. Quite probably it would have been the ultimate act of personal sacrifice. But considering the body count yesterday, you would think there would be one. You would think.
Maybe it’s just my inherently argumentative nature, but I have a hard time with the lamb-to-the-slaughter mentality. I took the death walk at Auschwitz in 2004 from the selection hut in the heart of the Birkenau killing complex
to the end of the rail line in more ways than one,
and the heart of darkness of the crematoria.
And I still didn’t get it. How could any people go so meekly to certain death? And this was running through my mind while I was still in this enormous complex, which afforded no hope of escape, taking the same path to destruction as did countless millions over half a century before. There was no mistaking what was going on. Any illusion of hope, any sense of denial vanished in the smoke of the chimneys as the victims approached.
And yet. . . and yet. . . Nobody looked for a weapon of opportunity. Nobody attacked a camp guard with a makeshift weapon. Nobody went out of their way to accurately assess the hopelessness of their situation and resolve to take some of the bastards with them. At least not many. And certainly not enough.
Well, I wasn’t at Auschwitz in 1943, and I wasn’t at Virginia Tech yesterday.
Still, Todd Beamer found himself in such a situation not long ago. What must have gone through his mind as he accurately assessed the hopelessness of his situation? What qualities in his character led him to the decision to take the course that he did? Would those brave souls of United 93 who crossed the threshold from ordinary Americans to heroic patriots been galvanized to action without the spark that Todd Beamer provided? Hard to say.
Leaders take action. Todd Beamer was a leader. I can’t say that I would have emulated his example in those circumstances. I have not been in that position. But I can understand it. At least I can understand it better than going meekly to oblivion, whether on the death walk at Birkenau or sitting in a classroom at Virginia Tech awaiting execution.
I left USC this afternoon with my question unanswered. How would SC students react in a similar situation? Of course, I would like to believe – in the tradition of entrepreneurial spirit that pervades the campus – that someone, perhaps more than one, would stand up, charge the gunman, and take the bastard out. It might cost the lives of the defenders, but better to die for something than die for nothing.
Either way, such musings reflect the loyalty of a very partisan alum and are hardly rooted in dispassionate reasoning. No one can predict the behavior of people in extremis until they find themselves in those circumstances. I’ve never faced it, and pray God I never will.
And yet. . .
So, what does all this have to do with Allegiance and Duty betrayed? Nothing really. Except to cite that the circumstances often choose the leader. And as with all leadership, someone so chosen must seize the moment. Or not. Either way, in the world of leadership, there is precious room for grief. There is time to assess what happened, mourn the loss, bury the dead, and maybe take fast action the next time a murderous maniac resolves to take out his frustrations on a group of innocent victims.
Certainly, we have leaders amongst us today. Todd Beamer was one. Hopefully, there will be others. But we don’t have as many as in years past. And the doomed souls who went to their deaths yesterday didn’t have any.
Sad to say.