Courage, Shame, and Practice:

On the Ayaan Hirsi Ali thread, one commentator asked me:

[W]here did the Volokh family just move to? If it's not a gated community, maybe you and your family could bear the risks and invite her to live next to ... you and yours.

We're always braver when it's someone else you want to share the risk with you, based on your own actions, not your neighbors or friends.

That's a fair question, it seems to me: What would I do if Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- or Salman Rushdie, or a Muslim who's gotten death threats from anti-Muslim bigots, or a black activist who's gotten death threats from Klansmen -- moved next to me?

Well, I hope I'd be ashamed to complain, much less try to demand that the neighbor be evicted. Would I realize that Ali's presence, for instance, creates some extra risk for me and my family? Sure. Would I feel some fear because of that? Sure.

But I'd hope that her presence would impress me with her courage, and would move me to at least try to feign equal courage, rather than trying to hound her from the neighborhood. I hope that I'd be embarrassed to say, to my neighbors and eventually to my sons, "Someone who was very brave, and brave in the service of trying to help our nation and help mankind, took tremendous risks. And to avoid taking far lesser risks, I turned against her."

Protecting one's family is a very great thing. Protecting oneself is generally good, too. But, no, protecting one's family and oneself against all risks can't be the highest goal, if our nation, the values we cherish, and ultimate we ourselves are to survive.

We praise the brave and we condemn those who -- however rationally -- conspicuously display absence of bravery precisely to reinforce this notion. We recognize that fear is human, and often rational. We recognize that each of us, if tested, might fail. But at least we should ask, I think, for a certain degree of chagrin about certain kinds of fears, for the decency to be embarrassed about them and to keep quiet about them rather than acting on them by trying to evict a courageous neighbor.

Finally, let's put things into a bit of perspective. The risk to the neighbors in the Ali case isn't zero, but it isn't a tremendous risk, either. It's not having to go to war against an invader. It's not joining the Resistance. It's not becoming a dissident against a tyrannical government. It's not being Gary Cooper in High Noon.

It's not rushing the cockpit of a hijacked plane (which, even if it might be rational on a personal cost-benefit analysis, requires more presence of mind and ability to overcome panic than I suspect most of us could muster). It's not even speaking out yourself against an oppressive and violent ideology. Look, I understand how appalling those risks are. I sympathize with those who silently try to avoid running them.

But dark days are here, and darker still are ahead. Each of us may one day indeed face a terrible test. If we don't perform the small acts of bravery, how will we ever be able to perform the large ones? If we don't try to make a habit of courage -- if we don't seize, in our mostly safe and comfortable lives, the opportunities to be brave -- how can we make sure that our courage will be there when we really need it?