Monday, December 28, 2009

The Heroism Instinct at Work on Flight 253

The passenger accounts of what happened when a man tried to set off an explosive on Northwest flight 253 last week are quite consistent.  When the fire started, people started running up the aisle and across the plane to get away from the flames.  Jasper Schuringa, a 32 year-old from Amsterdam who was seated behind and across the plane from the fire, jumped across the plane and over several people to tackle the perpetrator, get the melting syringe he was holding away from him, and subdue him. 

Schuringa is being hailed as a hero, and he certainly is one.  Unlike some heroes in other situations, Schuringa is not using the usual "anyone would have done what I did" line, however.  At the risk of taking the wind out of his sails, I'm going to say it for him, at least to a small extent.

Most of us are familiar with what is called the "fight or flight" response.  This refers to the physical and psychological reaction to perceived danger that comes from a very old, primitive place in our minds.  Like animals stalked by a predator, our bodies and minds prepare to either fight back or run away.  To be complete, we really should refer to the "fight, flight or freeze" response, because we also have an instinct to stand very still -- like the proverbial deer in the headlights -- as a way of self-preservation.

When the fire started, the people closest to it reacted instantly with the "flight" part of the response.  They were in immediate danger from the fire itself.  Their instinct, which if you think about it is a pretty good one, was to get away from the flames, and they did.  So why did Schuringa act differently?

When Schuringa saw the fire, the immediate danger he perceived was not the flames.  Remember, he was across the plane and was not about to be burned.  From his perspective, the immediate danger was the plane going down.  His instinct, because there is no running away from a crashing plane, was the "fight" part of the response.  The same urge towards self preservation that made others run away made him jump on the bad guy.

Now, you could argue that there were others at similar distances from the fire who didn't do what Schuringa did, and of course that's true.  Some of those people were experiencing the "freeze" response.  Others were not physically capable of doing what he did.  Still others did not perceive the threat to the plane but instead were concerned, as those close to it were, with the fire, and were assessing whether they needed to run.  I seriously doubt that anyone was thinking, "Someone should stop that guy, but not me."

I do not mean to take anything away from Schuringa.  We should all be grateful for his quick actions.  All I'm suggesting is that what he did was just as instinctual for him as running away was for others.  He can feel proud of what he did.  No one else, however, should feel ashamed that they didn't.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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