Features, Politics, Security

When Good Men Fail to Stand Up to Danger

I spent most of last Wednesday watching the news from Westminster. Unfortunately, keeping an eye on the BBC News channel as reports of a terrorist attack in Europe filter through has taken up much of my time in recent years. Usually, the newsreaders quickly run out of verified details and resort to repeating the same headlines on repeat until new facts become available. The coverage of the Westminster attack followed the same pattern but with one change. Soon after the attack, it became clear that MP Tobias Ellwood – who served in the Royal Green Jackets during the 90s – had rushed into the danger as other fled in order to give emergency CPR to the fatally wounded PC Keith Palmer. For the best part of two days, tributes to Ellwood’s stunning bravery kept coming. Journalists, who were generally opposed to sharing images of the attack, circulated the photo of Ellwood hunched over PC Palmer. Most MPs in parliament on Thursday, the day after the attack, included some tribute to Ellwood and his heroism in their speeches.

Whilst I echo all of the sentiments of those paying tribute to Ellwood, I have found myself wondering how many British men would have acted like him.

If you saw someone being violent on a train, would you step in to prevent them from causing further harm? What about if you saw a woman being sexually assaulted on the London Underground, would you come to her aid and restrain the assaulter? I don’t wish to cause personal offence to you, dear reader, but I’m not convinced that you would. Both problems are getting worse, and it seems that fewer people are willing to stand up, be brave, and put themselves in harm’s way to protect those caught at the hands of a violent criminal. As far as I can tell, the sense of duty and physical readiness that propelled Tobias Ellwood into action is lacking in the general public. It seems that this weakness is especially common amongst men, where, as I will argue, those qualities matter more.

After a year stuffed full of news from around the globe, one story in particular stuck with me more than any other. On the 12th of December of last year, a thirty-eight-year-old man marched through a London Overground carriage whilst brandishing a knife and shouting to his fellow passengers that he wanted to kill a Muslim. He passed through the carriage without resistance – even stopping to ask a woman in a Hijab where “her man” was – before finally reaching his victim: Muhammed-Askar Ali. He stabbed Mr Ali ten times. No one stepped in to stop him. After he had completed his attack, a nurse came to Mr Ali’s aid. When the train reached Forest Hill station, passengers ran and hid in nearby shops. It took the police ten minutes to arrive at the scene. Slower passengers who were unable to reach the safety of the shops were immensely fortunate that the attacker did not continue the violence.

Muhammed-Askar Ali’s plight is not rare. The problem of unobstructed public violence, especially on public transport, is getting worse. In 2010, there were 6377 violent assaults on the London Underground network. By 2015, that number had risen to 8164. The problem also extends to sexual assault. The number of sexual assaults on the London Underground doubled in the same time from 544 to 1179. And according to TfL, 1 in 7 female passengers aged over 16 experienced sexual harassment on London’s public transport in 2014.

A number of solutions have been proposed to tackle these issues, although politicians have tended to treat the sexual assault problems as a priority. British Transport Police launched their ‘Report it to Stop it’ campaign, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has argued for women-only train carriages, and British Transport Police also carried out a ‘secure stations’ scheme, where better lighting and more see-through fencing has been put in place. All of these proposals could curtail the problem of assault on public transport, but none of them deal with the crux of the issue: good men are failing to stand up to danger in public. They are lacking in strength, bravery, and a sense of duty to protect vulnerable people.

It’s no surprise that men are no longer fulfilling this duty. The physical strength of western men has been decaying for the best part of thirty years. In the United States, the average grip strength for male millennials is below the average grip strength for American mothers in the 1970s. Testosterone levels in men have been steadily declining for the last two decades. Men are doing little to reverse this trend. Research by the British Heart Foundation has revealed that 19% of all English men are essentially ‘inactive’. In the North West, the rate of male inactivity reaches 26%. Tobias Ellwood was ‘swift and bold’, which is the motto for the regiment that he served in, but most British men lack the physical capacity for either quality.

Sadly, there is little hope for the next generation. Boys are also succumbing to the curse of inactivity. With parents who are either inactive or barely meeting recommended levels of exercise, British boys are spending more of their time in front of screens. The proportion of English boys aged 5 to 15 years meeting recommendations fell between 2008 and 2012. The largest declines of activity were at age 13 to 15, where testosterone is peaking and muscles should be growing – but the lure of the Xbox is preventing this. 44% of men aged between 16 and 24 spend more than 6 hours a day sedentary, which is 13 points higher than the average across men of all ages.

This has got to change. Fathers need to get their sons off the sofa and into the weights room. Any teaching we give boys about protecting the vulnerable and being courageous is useless if we fail to teach them how to be physically strong. To do this, British men need to remind younger men of how rewarding the benefits of physical strength are. Medals, whether they are metal rewards for civilian heroism or moral rewards like the sense of accomplishment that comes with fulfilling a duty, are more valuable than online achievements.

Unfortunately, some popular feminists disagree with my proposals. This disagreement extends beyond their opposition to my view that men should take an active role in publicly confronting criminals. For example, academics and popular figures in feminism have recently argued that men opening doors for women – commonly seen as a kind, chivalrous gesture – is a dangerous, sexist practice. Professor Judith Hall, of Northeastern University, has claimed that men opening doors for women is an example of ‘benevolent sexism’ and a ‘sexism [that] looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.’ Maybe, just maybe, this kind gesture isn’t sexist and is simply welcoming, appealing and harmless. If we teach men and boys that simple chivalry is a form of sexism that must be opposed, how do we convince them to commit to the braver, more difficult chivalrous demands? If a man sees a woman caught in dangerous circumstances, might he reject the urge to help her as it would be a form of ‘benevolent sexism’? If we damage chivalry and moral inter-gender behaviour at the most basic level, then we have no chance of saving it where it really matters.

Our western society was founded on many Judeo-Christian virtues. Some of them have been adapted for our benefit, but many are being weakened for no good reason. The sense of duty that men should have towards the protection of women and children is a vital virtue of our civilisation and its decline should not be seen as a positive change. The ‘woman and children first’ notion (also known as the Birkenhead Drill) has consistently been ignored in recent times. A recent example of Birkenhead Drill ignorance is the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, where some men escaped through a back entrance of the café, leaving the remaining hostages (including pregnant women and children) with an armed gunman. If women had been hurt whilst men were fleeing from the London Overground knifeman, would they have felt any shame? I am not sure that they would.

Perhaps we could improve the Birkenhead notion by adding “and the vulnerable” to the “women and children” list, but if we want to inspire more heroism like the kind that we saw from Tobias Ellwood last week, then we must revive this sense of duty in some form. This, tied with a significant improvement in male fitness, would be an immensely positive change for society.


Charlie Peters is a philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter @CDP1882


  1. Lyn87 says

    I could write a book without adequately covering everything there is to say about this topic, but I’ll just write this instead:

    Chivalry or equality.

    Pick one.

    • Ann L says

      Chivalry is about consideration of others. It’s about good manners. in today’s western world, we can falsely associate this with male dominance, but that’s a stretch best left to professional quibblers. Chivalry and equality are values that can easily co-exist in a manner that enhances the dignity of both the person engaging in a thoughtful act and the person for whom the act is undertaken.

      • What? He’s talking about chivalry in the context of entering dangerous situations to protect strangers. This goes beyond good manners and thoughtfulness.

      • Lyn87 says

        Firstly, that’s not what chivalry is – or ever was. Chivalry was a code (sporadically) adopted by and for upper-class medieval warriors. What you are talking about is manners, and the two words are far from synonymous.

        Secondly, when people demand that men display “chivalry” today – like our young scholar here – they are not displaying a desire to return to the social norms of the 12th Century courts of Marie de France or Eleanor of Aquitaine. They are demanding that men (and men alone) adhere to a code of conduct that is based on a social contract that has been thoroughly repudiated by women and in law.

        One cannot demand that men retain the (potentially deadly) obligations inherent in being “gentlemen” while freeing women up from even the most trivial social obligations of being “ladies.”

        Let’s be clear – Mr. Peters is not just asking for able-bodied men to offer their subway seats to elderly ladies. He is demanding that unarmed men initiate physical violence against armed criminals when being unsuccessful may well get them killed and even being successful may get them gravely wounded and imprisoned, on behalf of women who have no reciprocal obligations to either them as individuals or to the society that demands their sacrifice.

        “Chivalry” (both medieval and modern) and equality are simply incompatible in the long run. Women on both sides of the Atlantic demanded and received equality… loss of the female privileges (such as physical protection) that come with modern notions of chivalry is part of the bargain.

        We can both wish that things were not as they are, but wishing will not make it so.

        Choose equality or choose the pedestal, but for Heaven’s sake, choose ONE.

  2. feministhater says

    The Western World made their choice. Give women the vote, men are crap and let’s allow millions of our millennia old enemy through our gates and shame our own men because…. reasons.

    Made your bed, now sleep in it.

  3. I think you are more on the ball with the decline in chivalry than on a decline in physical ability due to online activity.

    Chivalry was often rooted in machismo and both are ‘problematic’. If physical bravery is a traditional masculine quality and masculine qualities are no longer valued why risk being stabbed?

    And this seems to be a largely Southern metropolitan problem.

    Run amok at a Scottish airport and you are likely to get decked, even if you set yourself on fire.

  4. Robin says

    It doesn’t help that you can go to prison in England for defending yourself. Why would anyone risk jail for someone else?

  5. Steve says

    The Brits disarm their law abiding population and then wonder why they don’t run in to stop armed attackers.

    • If passengers on a train had access to guns so would their attackers.

      Terrorists in the U.K. resort to car and knive attacks because, on the whole, they have less access to weapons than the average drug dealer.

  6. Lyn87 says


    If law-abiding passengers on trains had access to guns there would be no attackers… that’s the point.

    The U.S. (where I live) has wildly divergent laws about bearing arms. Some portions of the U.S. have laws every bit as restrictive as anywhere in the world, while other parts have few such restrictions. In general, the sections with strict gun laws are crime-ridden hellholes, while the sections with few are about as crime-free as the surface of the Moon.

    Steve and Robin are correct: the U.K. has effectively disarmed the law-abiding members of the public and criminalized self defense. At the same time, men are told that masculine behavior is bad and that women require nothing of men. Is it any wonder that young men aren’t confronting criminals… especially armed ones with nothing but their bare hands?

    Look, I like to visit the U.K., and within the past year I spent time in Edinburgh (among my favorite cities) before hiking Hadrian’s Wall end-to-end, and at no time did I feel myself to be in danger of crime, but the simple fact is that actions have consequences, and the U.K. (and increasingly parts of the U.S.) have created the conditions that result in men being less willing to put themselves in harm’s way on behalf of strangers. If that’s a problem worth fixing it will require undoing the underlying conditions at the legal and cultural levels that caused them.

    Throwing a paddy at unarmed and unappreciated men for not queering some knife-wielding wanker’s pitch is a damp squib (did I get that right?).

  7. Luke Reeshus says

    While I agree with the gist of this post, i.e. the “pussification” of the West, I have to point out that Muhammed-Askar Ali’s fellow passengers acted prudently, not cowardly. Confronting someone who’s wielding a knife, while unarmed, is a very bad idea. This has more to do with the physics of violence than anything else; no amount of bravery, and not even much hand-to-hand combat training, will keep you from getting stabbed. Flesh is soft, steel is hard.

    The only way that guy could have been stopped is if a bunch of passengers decided to rush him at the same time. And, even then, somebody would probably have gotten stabbed. It’s a collective action problem with no real solution (short of posting an armed security guard in every car).

  8. Cindy says

    I’m a chick and I open doors for both men and women.

  9. The McChuck says

    When the laws don’t recognize any difference between defensive use of force and offensive, then you have ensured that the law abiding will not use force to protect themselves, much less others.

    After all, why should they risk injury and almost certainly a prison sentence to protect a stranger?

  10. @CDP1882 says

    Charlie, you’re better than this absolute drivel.

    Is this a cry for help?

  11. Yeah Nope says

    Summary: ‘Men, throw yourselves in harm’s way, because reasons!’

    Evaluation: When there is no immediate worry about sharp objects or flying lead, academia, the media, and government organizations seemingly have no problem with shitting all over men and masculinity. Yet as soon as there is something dangerous to be done it’s; “Men, time to risk your life for our great society!”.

    To which I reply; “No, get fucked”.

  12. BicepsBruceWillis3000 says

    So a lack of physical ‘strength’ on behalf of young men is why women are raped and terrorists commit awful crimes.

    Men need to be thrown into the weights room yeh? The 90% of the men in the weights room, mincing about in their string vests and checking their arms in the mirror are the heroes of society who stand up to terrorists. They’ve been doing bicep curls for 6 days a week with the primary intention of crushing the skulls of rapists and terrorists in the crook of their arm. These are the heroes. Sure.

    Is it no coincidence that this MP was in the forces? As was PC Palmer? They both knew first aid and they knew what to do. They are heroes for sure. But you don’t reproduce these heroes by chucking them in the ‘weights room’. Unless this idiot wants to reintroduce mass conscription? I’m sure he’d love to do that from the solace of Edinburgh university.

    I was there after people were knocked down and killed- there was humanity everywhere. People ran towards the situation and helped or tried to help. Unfortunately we don’t all know first aid- that is a shame. But what did you want some young man to do? Stop a car going at 75mph before crashing into the gate and stabbing a police officer? What would he have done in that situation?

    And all of the unnecessary feminist bashing is ridiculous. This is nothing to do with chivalry. You’re not going to be the next milo yiannopoulus. God help us all if the young men today are looking up to people like him.

    When it comes to sexual assault- wouldn’t it be nice if all rapes were done in plain view, in front of an audience of young honed men. This even applies on public transport. It’s not that simple.

    The modern man might not be strong enough mentally, or physically. But don’t use a completely tangential tragedy, the Westminster Bridge attack, to make your point about the state of masculinity in the contemporary world. Regardless, I don’t recall any men jumping on the backs of IRA bombers and disarming them when there was no such thing as an Xbox.

    Further, Tobias Ellwood did not stop the terrorist. He did not jump in and neutralise the threat. He performed a heroic act, and did all in his power to save a life via CPR. But no amount of strength training or testosterone was required for that. You have completely misconstrued the events to fit your polemic against modern men.

    Perhaps this imbecile needs to get off from behind his keyboard and join the forces if he feels so strongly about this. And maybe cut out the batman movies whilst he’s at it. Jumped up little boy

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