In 1914, Jon Erskine, a professor of English at Columbia, published an essay titled “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” It was adapted from a speech he had delivered to the Amherst College chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, and it became a highly influential text at the time. Erskine’s point was unambiguous, and one that I accept as self-evident: be intelligent, think about the world around you with seriousness and curiosity, and always try to improve your perspective; admit when you’re wrong, and then synthesize the contradiction into a new truth. For my part, I would add the obligation to be good: try not to hurt other people or your environment unnecessarily and apologize or make changes when you do. You could embellish these pillars endlessly, of course, but these were the basic values I imagined guiding the good adult life.
Last Saturday, while having dinner at a friend’s house, I received a news alert on my phone, announcing that a Chechen terrorist had stabbed five people, killing one, before French police shot him dead. The attack took place by the Opéra—a five-minute walk from my front door. As my Uber passed by on my way home, police were still combing the taped-up scene, and the interior minister was standing in a spotlight, waiting to address the cameras.
This story barely made the news in the United States. It was just a knife attack—no bombs or guns, as there have been in recent years—and just one fatality. But I have been thinking about it ever since, just as I have been thinking about the extraordinary feat of heroism James Shaw exhibited recently when he wrestled away an AR-15 from a shooter in a Tennessee Waffle House. More than anything, I’ve been struck by Shaw’s words after the fact. “I made up my mind,” Shaw said, “He was going to have to work to kill me.”
There is so much we cannot control in these eruptions of indiscriminate slaughter, and I am not at all certain I could muster the bravery of Mr. Shaw. I’ve become convinced, though, that there may be something like a moral obligation to be physically strong, or at least as healthy, as fit, as you possibly can. There is no guarantee of surviving something as random and inherently unfair as the sort of knife attacks that are becoming more frequent in European cities, but the stronger you are, the greater your chance of escaping, interfering, or subduing the attacker—of making him have to work that much harder.
I had let my gym membership lapse over the past few months, but yesterday I was back at it.
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