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“Lord Jim” and South Florida and the Gun Debate

One of the names in the news lately is that of Broward County School Resource Deputy Scot Peterson, who is suddenly infamous as the armed and body-armored guard who was outside Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and didn’t rush in when he heard the first shots fired in a deadly rampage that took the lives of 17 students and faculty and wounded a dozen others on St. Valentine’s Day. He’s since been forced into early retirement, condemned for cowardice by the Broward County Sheriff and the President of the United States, and widely criticized even by those who aren’t in need of a scapegoat for the tragedy.
We’ll leave it to the Broward County Sheriff’s office to determine Peterson’s professional fate, let God judge his soul, and hope that whatever his culpability in the tragedy he finds redemption in this life or the next. His story has a certain fascination for us, though, as it recalls a favorite novel called “Lord Jim.”
If you’ve never read it you really should, because Joseph Conrad was one of the English language’s greatest writers and “Lord Jim” is one of his greatest masterpieces, and it has some wise and pertinent things to say about the human condition. The story concerns a young 19th Century British fellow named Jim, no better or worse than anyone else, who becomes a competent enough seaman on a ship transporting “pilgrims of an exacting faith” through the Red Sea. One stormy night when the ship is endangered through no fault of his own, young Jim fails to act as he was diligently trained and fairly paid to do by prematurely abandoning the ship, and although so did the ship’s captain and other higher officers he’s the only one who winds up on trial and found guilty of dereliction of duty and scorned by respectable people. With the help of a few sympathetic writer types Jim winds up in a series of desultory jobs and eventually on a remote island with no civilized norms of behavior, and without giving away the entire plot suffice to say he pays a steep price for atonement in his second chance to do the right thing.
Sorry to get so literary on you, but we wish that a better scribe such as Conrad was around to provide commentary on the current political debate regarding the Douglas High tragedy in particular and the peculiarly American phenomenon of mass shootings in general. Alas, the sorry situation is now beyond the satirical talents of ourselves or even a Jonathan Swift, so only such a tragedian as Conrad could do it justice.
Former Broward County School Resource Deputy Peterson is lately defending himself, saying that he followed training and had reason to believe that the shots were being defending outside the school, and while that seems quite plausible to such uncertain and forgiving sorts as ourselves there’s no way to recast him as the hero of this tale. For now, that makes him a plausible villain.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office that trained and meagerly paid Peterson had several presumably better-trained and better-paid deputies who also took some time before rushing into the building, and by then the alleged shooter was being apprehended down the street by a patrol car on routine duty, and the entire office had failed to keep an eye on the alleged shooter despite numerous domestic abuse calls to his various homes, warnings from school officials, tips from classmates and neighbors, the alleged shooter’s postings on social media about shooting up the school he’d ben expelled from, and various other warnings that something very bad was about to go down in Broward County.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel defended himself in a disaster of an interview with the Cable News Network, citing his “amazing leadership to this agency,” and wound up seeming to blame it all on “one deputy who was remiss, dereliction of duty, and he’s no longer with this agency.” There are already calls on both the left and right for his resignation or firing or tarring-and-feathering, not to mention the criticisms of all the grieving or scared parents in even the richest parts of Broward County, but we’ll leave to to the locals to decide his professional fate and let God judge his soul.
Israel can still kick the blame up to a higher power, though, which is one of of those literary twists that best of the satirists and tragedians could have never come up with. The federal government’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was also tipped off about the alleged school shooter allegedly responsibly for an undeniable school shooting, and similarly failed to act, so there are also calls on the left and right to replace the guy in charge of that agency that didn’t turn out to be the hero of this instead tragic tale.
President Donald Trump always imagines himself as the hero in all these tragic subplots of the ongoing American reality show, but he’s also the guy who appointed the current FBI director, and he’s meanwhile leaving open the possibility that the once-venerable FBI is still engaged in a “deep state” “silent coup” against his presidency. At this point neither Swift nor Conrad are equal to the convoluted plot, but even a hack reality show writer would have the Trump character saying that Peterson and other Broward County Sheriffs deputies are “no Medal of Honor winners” and his behavior was “frankly, disgusting,” and although acknowledging one never really knows about such things claiming “I really believe I’d have run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
There’s nothing in Trump’s by now well-known biography to back up the claim, of course. His tough guy reputation is based mostly on the schoolyard taunts he “tweets” against political opponents too dignified to respond in kind, and back when he was a boastfully athletic American youth he used educational deferments and some spurious bone spurs that never seemed to interfere with his golfing to avoid serving his country in war. We’ll not judge him for that, but we’ll dourly note that he’s disrespected the service of men who were prisoners of war and almost any decorated veterans who are of the Democratic persuasion, and we’ll not indulge the comic book fantasy of Trump as the superhero of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High if he’d only been there with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, on the left, they’re searching for other scapegoats. Those uncannily well-spoken and well-groomed and telegenic kids from the shot-up school are disinclined to blame Porter, who they seemed to know as a nice enough guy no better or worse anyone else, and are instead blaming that Sheriff they’ve never met and Trump and the National Rifle Association and anyone else who ever had a nice thing to say about the right to keep and bear arms. As much as we like those Douglas High kids and sympathize with their horrific pain, we also cherish our right to arm ourselves should it ever become necessary in this tragic world, and thank the NRA for its efforts on our behalf, and hold out the usual hope that youth doesn’t achieve its most idealistic aims.
We won’t mind if they achieve some of their more  modest goals, though. The same people who are saying that the opinions of 17-yeaar-olds who have survived a mass school shooting should be dismissed as the uneducated rantings of a mere child are simultaneously saying those same people should be allowed to buy the heaviest weaponry on the market the day turn 18, so it seems reasonable that you shouldn’t be allowed to buy an AR-15 until you’re allowed to buy a martini. Fixing whatever bureaucratic glitches obviously occurred at the county and state and federal levels seems reasonable enough, too, but given the NRA’s obstinance and the Republican party’s never-give-an-inch stance  it remains to be seen how the the polarized sides might work that out.
The best solutions will require some political courage on both sides of the political divide, and these days that’s even harder to find than the physical courage that Conrad and Zane Grey used to write about. Still, Douglas High’s burly and balding and unarmed football coach, Aaron Feis, gave his life  to save the lives of several students at the school he loved, though, even if his name isn’t as prominent in the news as Peterson’s. We’ll hold out hope, therefore, and in the meantime wish  all the School Resource Deputy Petersons of the world a chance at redemption.

— Bud Norman

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