The reaction of most Americans to the tragedy in Boston was typical: We came together as a nation, mourned our fallen, and applauded our newest heroes. The sight of first-responders running to the sound of danger within mere seconds of the explosions, not away from disaster as human instinct might dictate, was nothing short of exceptional—but also characteristically American. Indeed, for 237 years, Americans have risked all to help their fellow citizens, strangers, and foreigners equally.
The people of Boston, whose lives had been stopped, were grateful. The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, residents of Watertown, Mass., where the surviving terrorist was captured, gathered in the streets to cheer the departing police and SWAT units. They sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and other songs of praise to America and to the selfless men and women that confronted terror so bravely and professionally.
But it’s worth pointing out the paradox: The bombs exploded near many elite American universities whose leadership for decades denigrated one important symbol of American volunteerism and bravery—the military. Boston is home to many prominent U.S. universities, some of which rejected the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Harvard, for instance, only allowed ROTC to open an office on campus in 2012. For decades since the Vietnam War, Harvard students wishing to serve our nation as military officers after graduation had to travel to nearby MIT to receive ROTC instruction. Same with Tufts University, whose hospital staff heroically cared for the wounded on April 15, but which still doesn’t have its own ROTC program on campus.
Many police officers, emergency medical technicians, and firefighters are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. There, they not only served our country, but learned the skills that led to the essential jobs in emergency response that we take for granted until moments of peril.
The acts of valor and heroism we saw in Boston are not innate: the average human does not run to danger, but away from it. The predisposition for “flight” is more prevalent in the “fight or flight” instinct than is the one to fight. In the military, those unheralded Americans trained to sacrifice for the benefit of comrades and strangers equally, to shield a body from enemy fire while applying a tourniquet to what is left of a leg, or to stop life-giving air from escaping the lung through a chest wound.
Harvard and other liberal universities are finally beginning to allow young Americans who wish to do so to learn military sciences on campus. It is reassuring, but more work remains. We should be able to look toward the academy to respect those who choose to serve outside the classroom in ways that many Americans could never comprehend. The academics’ lives and freedoms, as well as ours, depend on our warriors and first responders.
We are a most fortunate to live in a land of men and women that confront danger with bravery, that voluntarily overcome biological fear for an altruistic purpose. To do so, they occasionally run against prevailing intellectual winds. They are the reason we are still the land of the free.
Otto J. Reich, a Washington-based international consultant, is a former U.S. ambassador and assistant secretary of state.