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How does a society respond to senseless killings?

A 21-year-old college student started a stabbing spree inside a Taipei MRT train Monday afternoon with a self-professed aim to “do something big.” It is probably natural — and paper-selling — for the media to demonize the assailant, to dub him a “butcher,” a “mad murderer” or a “cold-blooded killer,” but that would only give the assailant precisely what he wants.

The assailant, who told police that being sentenced to death was one of his goals as he did not dare to kill himself, is nothing more than a coward who regards hurting unarmed innocent people as the only way to prove his self-worth. At a time when the world is facing so many challenges, this student of environmental engineering who defines random killing as a “big achievement” obviously has no faith in his ability to effect change. There is nothing special in the actions of a man who did to others what he did not dare to do to himself. If there is anything special about him, it is his extraordinary lack of compassion and self-esteem.

The truly extraordinary acts the shocked citizens of Taipei witnessed on Monday were not those of the assailant, but of the courageous passengers who stood up against him. The phubbing passengers of Taipei Metro trains have long been a symbol of the detachment of city dwellers in the digital age. But when the attack took place, the metro passengers showed true integrity. Stuck at the end of the moving train in a close confrontation with the assailant, the passengers acted bravely and calmly. The male passengers, including one who was already bleeding from his arm, formed a line and pointed umbrellas at the assailant while protecting children, female passengers, the scared and the injured.

When the train door finally opened, there was no chaotic rush for the exit. The front line passengers, armed only with their umbrellas, stood their ground and let others leave first. At the metro station, some passengers stayed behind to confront the assailant, some tended to the injured even as the assailant was still at large. One off-duty nurse even jumped out of a train going in the oppose direction and into danger just to offer help. These people have shown the assailant how meaningless and childish his “big plan” was in the face of true bravery.

The attack has taken away the innocence of metro-riders, who have never witnessed such senseless acts in Taiwan. The police rightly increased their presence at metro stations and on trains to provide a sense of calm to the citizens as well as to deter copycats. In the long term, Taipei and New Taipei authorities should review their MRT security measures in light of this event. Society, however, should be wary of reactionary policies and responses. Some angry netizens have called for the return to the historical Chinese idea of “harsh measures for harsh times” (亂世用重典) in response to the attack. While their wrath is understandable, their prescription for the problem is not advisable. One act of cowardice does not a harsh time make. A vindictive justice system that sees blood as the only meaningful response to problems is based on the same illogical and feeble ideas as those of the assailant.

A senseless killing spree has robbed four families of their loved ones, injured over 20 people and terrorized many more. It failed, however, to prove anything the assailant wished to. It showed how pathetic the attacker is and the courage of the attacked. While sensible measures are needed to enhance the safety of the public transportation system and to prevent copycat events, society should not allow the attacker's bloodthirsty actions to change the nature of its justice.

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