The meaning of manly

The courage of ordinary men who saved women at Port Arthur moved Karen Kissane.

WHENEVER there is a mass murder like that at Port Arthur, there is a vein of distress that runs quietly below all the public anguish over how such things come to be. It belongs to the private world of women, who talk about it amongst themselves in quiet corners at the office, or over coffee with their friends in the suburbs. “It’s always men who do these things, ” they say to each other helplessly. “Why is it always men?”
And suddenly the male face of evil, always at the back of women’s minds on dark streets at night or when checking their deadlocks at home, looms larger in their lives. Women’s madness is turned largely on themselves but the madness of men is too often turned on the world, and in particular, on its women and children.

A newspaper story about random killings around the world over the past 30 years confirms that it’s almost always males on the other end of the gun; of 20 mass murders listed, only one, in 1985, was committed by a woman. The pattern is just as true for domestic mass murders like the recent one in Queensland, where an estranged husband shot his children, his wife and his in-laws, before turning the gun on himself.

When horror is piled upon horror like this, it can seem that maleness is inextricably linked with violence, with ungovernable rage, with appallingly wanton destruction. But while this kind of madness is savage, it is also rare. For every mass killer there are many more good men who use their strength to support and protect those they love and those more vulnerable than themselves.

If there is any comfort to be drawn from the catastrophe at Port Arthur, it must come from the selfless way “ordinary” Aussie blokes acted. At least five men were killed protecting their wives or children, and others put their lives at risk to rescue strangers.

Peter Nash, 32, a painter and decorator from Laverton, reportedly tried to shield his wife from gunfire. The resulting bullet wounds left him dying in her arms 30 minutes later. Winemaker Jason Winter, 29, was shot dead as he lunged in front of his wife and three-month-old baby to take the bullets intended for them. They both survived.

Two men from country Victoria, Ron Jary, 71, and Denis Lever, who was in his 50s, were killed after having pushed their wives under cafe tables when the shooting first began. Their wives survived. Kevin Sharp, 69, of Kilmore, is also believed to have died while shielding his wife.

The husband of Janet Quin dragged himself, wounded, out of a bus to lie beside her and comfort her as she died on the road. Peter Crosswell took two women out of the carnage of the cafe and hid them in a bush before returning to try to help others.

An elderly man begged police to try to get the alleged killer to take him as a hostage in exchange for freeing any younger people held prisoner at the siege. He’d had a good life, he said; he was willing to trade his for theirs.

This was not a war, in which men are trained to act instinctively for the good of a cause. Some of these men were of an age that made it unlikely they had ever served as soldiers. And yet when it came to a sudden, utterly unpredictable attack on the lives of people they loved, they did not hesitate to protect others before looking to save themselves.

This is not to say that women have no such instincts. A woman facing the Mercy Hospital gunman in 1993 tried to distract him to protect her young staff and got a bullet in the knee for her pains. Most mothers would not hesitate to save their children at their own expense; at Port Arthur, Nanette Mikac did not abandon her three-year-old to give herself a better chance to get away.

But it does seem that when men and women face danger together, men still instinctively try to save women and children first, even in a situation where all are equally vulnerable. You could argue back and forth about whether this is innate or engendered, about what it means for equality of the sexes, about why it is that the women seem slower to understand what is happening or take action themselves.

Or you could just respect the nobility of the sacrifice.

It is humbling to realise that, in the same world where many women are abused and exploited by men, there are times when the mere fact of being female is honored and cherished in a way that can never be repaid. The killers should not be forgotten, but fears about bad men should not be allowed to overshadow knowledge about the good ones.

And tribute should be paid. Perhaps what is needed to honor all those who died is not so much a minute’s silence as a year’s ferocious outcry for national bi-partisan support of tough gun laws.

Lest we forget.

First published in The Age.