Thursday, April 19, 2007

Where Have Our Heroes Gone?

After a long discussion with friends tonight, I found myself asking the question of whether or not I would be strong enough to take the stand that Professor Liviu Librescu did against Cho Seung-Hui in the VA Tech Massacre. In case you don’t remember, the late Professor is (so far) the only recognized hero of the day. What drove him to such sacrifice? Was he a romantically imposing figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger, boldly swooping in on the killer with such force as to hold off Cho long enough so that others could run to safety? Was it his training as a soldier from some old, noble war? No, it was none of these things. He was a simple 76-year-old man – a survivor of the Holocaust, and, apparently the only one with an instinctual reaction that dictated, “You know, sometimes saving others is more important than saving yourself.”

Now, I don’t mean to sound insensitive here. I’m not saying that if I was in the room staring down the barrel of Cho’s gun that I wouldn’t wet myself like a scared puppy. I might. I’ll never know for sure unless I face that kind of situation in the future. However, I do have enough faith in myself to know that I would not be able to stand by and watch people die without trying to do something. I’m not trying to make myself sound like an armchair hero, calling the plays in my favor without facing a true mortal struggle. I’m just trying to figure out, albeit publicly, what drives me to such conviction. I’m also asking myself if anyone in those ill-fated classrooms ever thought about saving people besides themselves.

Now, before you jerk your knee in the predictable reaction that casts me as an evil, insensitive prick, please read what I have to say. It’s not my intent to be malicious or partisan. I honestly want to know why no one else stayed behind. And I'm not the only one asking.

Where are the stories of brave young men standing up to the killer? Where are the stories of the one brave soul who managed enough courage to make a lunge at the killer while he reloaded his ammunition? I’m desperately waiting to hear something like this. I’m praying to hear it – for our next generation’s sake.

Please understand that I am not making a judgment call. Surely, the rational thing to do in a situation like that is to run – especially when faced with mortal danger. I can’t (and don’t) fault people for being scared. I’ve run from many things, great and small, in my life. However, in the kind of situation faced in Blacksburg, how could I stand in line, essentially awaiting execution, watching others die and not do a thing about it? Why is it that Professor Librescu was the only one who instinctively stayed behind to “hold the fort”? Have we as a generation forgotten the meaning of sacrifice, specifically self-sacrifice? I think maybe we have.

In a world that increasingly focuses on new and improved ways to be selfish, is it a surprise that these students took the phrase “every man for himself” to be a personal code of ethics? Again, I’m not saying it was a conscious choice on their part. If they had a chance to think things through – I am confident many would have chosen to help. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The instinct to protect others did not prevail. This is just the way we’re raising people nowadays. We’re training a new generation to “look out for number one,” women and children be damned. If we feel bad about it later, we have an army of psychologists who tell us we didn’t have a choice and that everything is OK. But many times we do have a choice. We can act, even if it means we die in the process.

Sacrificing our own lives for the benefit of others is a uniquely human trait. It enhances the species and even helps to maintain it. Luckily, we’re not required to do it often, but we shouldn’t be afraid to make the stand when human duty requires it. In fact, we should make up our minds in advance on how we will choose to react.

When we fail to teach sacrifice, the default mindset is selfishness. And since we are teaching selfishness from birth these days, learning the law of sacrifice doesn’t have a chance, does it? Think about it.


Dan said...

It's been brought to my attention by some that I have overlooked a few things. Namely, that heroes can be found in our military; the story of the VA Tech students who barricaded the door with a desk; and the potential heroes of the day that we don't know about. I'd like to address both of these issues.

They are good points. The military is just about the only place left on the planet where men and women warrant being called heroes because of their daily sacrifices. However, the media is trying to change that. How many times have we heard that "it's not worth it" to bring freedom to the people or Iraq at the expense of our own? If that's the case, why did we bother fighting the Cold War, where our victory ostensibly brought freedom to billions? I digress here, though. I don't want this to be about the War. I am concerned (at the moment) with how the rising generation is being taught about sacrifice.

I have also considered the story of the VT students who barricaded the classroom door. That was an extremely smart measure to take, but was it heroic? Self-preservation doesn't qualify one as a hero, necessarily. And that's another problem I've been having. The media keeps referring to the slain students as "heroes." Again, I hate to sound insensitive, but what exactly makes a hero out of someone who shows up for school and gets murdered? It's horrifically tragic, yes, but not exactly heroic. If we continue to use the "H' word for every difficult moment in life that requires effort, or use it to define victims of awful crimes, then we denigrate those people who are true heroes in the traditional sense of the word - such as the soldiers in our military.

As for stories of unnamed people that may have died being heroic on Monday, I've considered that (indeed, remember, I'm hoping for it). It's certainly possible that we will never hear about their stories. But how then, did the story of the Professor become known almost immediately? People in that class witnessed him barricading himself against the door as they themselves were bailing out the windows. Surely if there was another heroic story to tell, someone would have seen it.

Like I mentioned before, it's a touchy subject. I just fear that true, instinctive self-sacrifice when it counts may be dying because of selfishness. If that is the case, we are in heap big trouble as a society and people.

The Last Man said...

With regard to your follow-up, well said.