Honoring the heroes of Virginia Tech Tragedy

photo by Chris Hall The Cavalier TodayHonoring the heroes of Virginia Tech Tragedy
by Alexander R. Cohen, Opinion Columnist at The Cavalier Today

Blacksburg, VA (rushprnews) April 20, 2007- MONDAY in Israel, they observed Holocaust Memorial Day. Monday, in Blacksburg, a survivor who once taught in Israel died, and he died a hero. Like all dead heroes, he left us a challenge.

His name was Liviu Librescu. He was a young Romanian, his son told The Associated Press, when his country aligned with Nazi Germany, and he was sent first to a labor camp and then to a ghetto. After the free Western powers and the Soviet Union vanquished the Nazi regime, Librescu faced another evil government: that of the communists. He studied engineering and earned a Ph.D. A man as smart as he must have known that refusing one’s allegiance to a communist government is hazardous to one’s career at least. Nevertheless he refused it, his son told the AP, and when he later asked the communists to let him move to Israel, he lost his job.

It was not until 1978, after Menachem Begin, then prime minister of Israel, intervened, that Librescu made it to that country, Librescu’s son told The AP. According to his curriculum vitae, still posted on a Virginia Tech Web site, Librescu taught at Tel Aviv University until 1985, when he began teaching at Virginia Tech. The CV runs to 61 pages of attainments, including this title, to which it gives pride of place: “U.S. citizen.”

Two tyrannies tried to enslave him, but he died a free man.

Liviu Librescu is worthy of honor, not because he died — anyone can die, and everyone eventually does — nor merely because of what he lived through, but because of what he did; and not only because of what he did as a researcher — although his CV claims he has been cited 1,000 times — but because of what he did as a man in the face of danger. He survived the Nazis. He said no to the communists. And reportedly, on Monday, at the cost of his life, he blocked the path of a killer.

Perhaps he could have fled out a window, as most of his students did. Surely he could have cringed in a corner. But with a killer in the corridor, The Washington Post reports, Librescu chose to put himself behind his classroom door, and try to keep it shut and let his students escape.

His was neither the life nor the death of a “victim.”

Others besides Librescu acted courageously on Monday. Kevin Granata, The Post reports, attempted to confront the killer, and it cost him his life. The Post reports that Trey Perkins, Derek O’Dell and Katelyn Carney held a door closed. Zach Petkewicz told CNN that after initially cowering he rallied two fellow students to barricade a door with a table. Jamal Albarghouti, The Post reports, ran towards the sound of gunshots, instead of away, with his cell-phone video camera.

It is good to know of this many heroes. It would be better to know of more and that no one died a victim. Sadly, there may be some stories that will never be known.

In our present age especially, when great moral weight is publicly assigned to the title of “victim,” it is important to focus on those who took the opportunity to act with courage. Being hurt, being a victim, warrants sympathy, but to identify too strongly with victims or put too much emphasis on suffering, is to risk thinking of victimization as normal, expectable or even admirable. But admiration belongs to heroes, and they are the ones who should inspire us.

No one can know the measure of his courage who has not been tested by great danger. I have not, and most likely, neither have you. Courage is a difficult virtue in part because we cannot practice it without bad things happening; where there are no dangers, there are no opportunities for courageous action. And it is, as Aristotle said, by doing the acts of a virtue that we develop it — and yet, as Aristotle also said, only a bloodthirsty person would turn friends into enemies just for the chance to practice courage.

There are, however, things we can do. We can do lesser acts of physical courage, starting if necessary with acts as trivial as refusing to be distracted by a bee in a classroom. We can do acts of moral courage, such as boldly advocating our views even to those who passionately oppose them.

And when we hear about calamities such as Monday’s, we can resist the language of victims and vulnerability in favor of praise for heroes and exhortations to courage. We can affirm that a noble death is not a tragedy. And when we consider that someday we might be the ones to face a murderer, we can rehearse in our minds scenes of heroism rather than of helplessness and make action, not suffering, what we look for in one another and demand of ourselves.

Alexander R. Cohen’s column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at acohen@cavalierdaily.com.

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