Nothing can redeem the harrowing massacre that unfolded last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But something does enter on the positive side of the ledger: A genuine American hero revealed himself that day.
Chris Mintz’s biography seems to fit the profile of a student enrolled in community college. He’d finished high school, done a stint in the army, worked at Walmart among a series of unremarkable jobs. He fought mixed martial arts and was going to school because he wanted to become a personal trainer. He’s the father of a young son with autism, and though he is no longer together with the boy’s mother, he remains thoroughly engaged in his son’s life.
It all sounds perfectly ordinary, and in most ways it was. Under almost all of the plausible scenarios in which a life such as this plays out, the rest of his countrymen would never have heard of him. He would have lived his life as tens of millions do, privately, with the travails and rewards of work, family and friendship. And the rest of us—and perhaps he himself—would never have known that a heroic heart was quietly beating inside him, awaiting only the occasion to reveal itself.
That occasion came in the form of a gunman who descended on the school that day heavily armed—not only with the weapons he carried, but also apparently with the warped and poisonous view that the way to make a name for himself, to make his mark on the world, was to kill as many people as possible and get himself killed in the process.
And that’s exactly what the gunman did. After he claimed his first victims, people started to flee the building, Mintz apparently among them. And it was at this moment, according to witnesses, that Mintz’s true character revealed itself. Because Mintz decided not to continue to safety but to turn around—to rush back toward the gunman to see if he could help others escape the mayhem. He chose to risk his life to try to save the lives of others.
He ran back into a library and pulled alarms, urging people to get out of the building to safety. In a classroom as the gunman advanced, Mintz tried to hold the door closed to prevent him from getting in. He was shot several times through the door. As the gunman gained entry past the wounded man on the floor, Mintz tried to dissuade him from further carnage with an unsuccessful appeal to common humanity: “It’s my son’s birthday!” It fell on a heart too black and a mind too clouded to respond, except by shooting Mintz at least two more times.
Mintz survived his seven bullet wounds and now faces a lengthy spell of physical therapy to rehabilitate his shattered legs.
What can we say about Mintz’s impulse to turn back and run toward the gunman in an effort to save others? From the point of view of self-preservation, it makes no more sense than the 9/11 firefighters running into rather than away from the burning Twin Towers. Those heroic firefighters at least had their comrades to encourage them to accept supreme adversity. Mintz had no one but himself.
This is the heart of modern heroism. In its most extreme form, it is a supreme act of generosity—risking and perhaps losing your life for the sake of others, often strangers. Some people, like firefighters and first responders, actively train for the moment when they have to put it all on the line. Others, such as Mintz, have had military training or pursue activities (cage-fighting, say) that demand physical prowess and courage.
But the impulse to charge a gunman is hardly common, and the unwillingness to do so is only human, as we know from many others that day in Oregon. We honor Chris Mintz’s heroism not only for its own sake but in the hope that other people who seem to be living perfectly ordinary lives will turn out to be as extraordinary as he was at a time of maximum peril.
Tod Lindberg is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His new book is “The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern” (Encounter).