What is the nature of courage?
Melody Harper seems to know. A clerk with the RCMP detachment at Garden Hill First Nation in remote northern Manitoba, Harper was driving with her 12-year-old daughter last week when, from a distance, she saw a young child fall off a large rock into the lake. Arriving at the shore, Harper discovered not one, but two lifeless bodies in the water.
“Handing her phone to her daughter to call for help, Melody jumped in the water and swam to the children,” the RCMP reported in a press handout. “She reached the four-year-old boy first, got him to shore and passed him to her daughter. She swam back for the second child, a three-year-old boy, and got him to shore.”
After Harper performed artificial respiration on the younger boy, both recovered and are now back with their grateful parents. When the Winnipeg Free Press asked her how cold the water was (spring breakup had occurred just a month ago), Harper replied: “I don’t remember.”
Diving into icy water to save lifeless children, without regard for personal safety, certainly fits the image most people have of courage—particularly when the story has a happy ending. For the Mounties, besieged lately by bad news, Harper’s heroic rescue is a welcome bit of reflected glory.
Rescue workers at the tragic Elliot Lake mall collapse experienced something quite different last week, both in outcome and public sentiment. As Maclean’s Senior Writer Michael Friscolanti reports in his on-the-scene account (“ ‘None of us wanted to leave . . . It was heartbreaking,’ ” page 18), efforts to find Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo in the mall ruins were hampered by numerous factors, not the least of which was a massive escalator hanging perilously over the remains of the lottery kiosk where the two were last seen. After suspending the rescue to wait for specialized equipment to stabilize the escalator, the crew from Ontario’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) were subjected to widespread scorn and disapproval. Some angry locals called them “cowards.” Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno said their actions were “appalling” and “inexcusable.”
Such expressions of contempt ignore the fact local firemen and the HUSAR team had already done everything they could to tunnel and claw their way toward Aylwin, who survived the initial collapse. The operation was halted only when the lives of the rescuers were in direct peril. Regardless, it seems the public expects rescue workers to plunge into the icy waters, so to speak, without thinking of their personal safety or the specifics of the situation. Is this an appropriate burden to place on emergency personnel? And what does this say about our perception of courage?
To answer such a knotty philosophical question, it’s necessary to go back to first principles. Aristotle thought long and deeply about courage, considered one of four cardinal virtues by ancient Greeks. And the great philosopher concluded courage is to be found at the midpoint between recklessness and cowardice. Courage derives not from blind exuberance, but intelligence.
Rushing into a burning building is thus an act of courage only if it carries a reasonable expectation the rescuer can accomplish his or her mission. Sheer recklessness may play well in Hollywood, but it has little usefulness in the real world where results, and the death toll, matter.
The emotional response from the Elliot Lake community at news the rescue was being halted temporarily is perfectly understandable. The fate of loved ones was at stake, after all. But the burden on the leader of any rescue mission is to keep all fatalities—victims and rescuers—to a minimum.
Rescue personnel are trained to take calculated risks, and yet no job outside wartime can knowingly send someone to a likely death. Lifeguards, for example, are trained to maintain a safe distance from any potential drowning victim who might pull the rescuer down as well. And as heroic as were the actions of the 400 firemen, police officers and other rescue personnel who died after rushing into the World Trade Center during 9/11, their deaths added greatly to the tragedy. Friscolanti’s in-depth report reveals the members of HUSAR were definitely not cowards; they were all highly motivated to find Aylwin alive. But the risk posed by the unstable escalator was simply too great. To proceed without stabilizing or removing it would have been reckless.
It’s undoubtedly a tragedy no one was able to reach Aylwin in time. But that doesn’t mean the rescuers weren’t courageous. They were. It’s just that this story doesn’t have a happy ending.