Virginia's generous hero

REX MURPHY

There were threads of uplift to the shock and tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings. Even the most extravagant horrors, we should be thankful, present instances of human generosity, courage and goodness.

Liviu Librescu
(1930-2007)

From the Virginia campus there was the story of a 76-year-old professor, a survivor of the Holocaust, who acted to hold a classroom door against the entry of the shooter. Liviu Librescu was his name, and he was an aeronautics engineer. In the words of his son, "My father blocked the doorway with his body and asked the students to flee." He was shot and killed. Many lived because of what he did.

In a rational or just universe, anyone who had personally experienced what the Nazis unleashed upon the world, and upon Jews in particular, might be thought to have tasted the limits of madness and pain.

But if the universe is rational and just, it is not so according to any rules of proportionality or balance that we can easily perceive. There is no rule that spares one who has already suffered unimaginably from suffering even more; no natural or divine pattern that will exempt a life already mocked and scarred by horror, from being forced to taste another cup of the same.

The example of this hero-victim, however, is the one unquestionable piece of moral sense in the entire sad episode this week.

Life is always precious, every minute of it. It is no easier to leave life at 76 than 17. This gentleman's heroism is no way diminished or modified because he was an "old man" and therefore didn't have, as the common phrase puts it, as much to lose. He had as much to lose, which was his life, as any of the much younger people for whom he gave it.

The choice to give one's life to save another's — even as that choice may be beyond the capacity of any particular one of us — never presents itself as inexplicable or irrational. Even in this madly selfish and egocentric world, a world of me-first in everything, it strikes us instantly as a noble and ultimately sensible thing to do. Good doesn't pose a mystery.


The choice to give one's life to save another's — even as that choice may be beyond the capacity of any particular one of us — never presents itself as inexplicable or irrational. Even in this madly selfish and egocentric world, a world of me-first in everything, it strikes us instantly as a noble and ultimately sensible thing to do. Good doesn't pose a mystery.


Mr. Librescu's sacrifice was more noteworthy — not perhaps in any strictly logical sense, but certainly in the emotional register with which, quite rightly, we configure most events — by the consideration that here was a man who had already experienced and endured unspeakable horror and violence before.

The motivations, the "reasons" behind Cho Seung-Hui's slaughter, by contrast, exhaust our ability to probe them. To call him "mad" is merely a way of deflecting unanswerable questions. The wanton rampage of a killer, shooting people at random whom, for the most part, he barely knew, perplexes us.

Mr. Librescu's actions, by virtue of his history, were astonishingly generous. It may not be a comfortable thought, but who would not give a "pass" to a Holocaust survivor? Here was someone who saw hell up close, indeed even lived within its horrid circle for a while. Is not such a person entitled, if the choice is his to make, to avoid another brush with evil, or at the very least to stay out on any other occasion of its line of fire?

We can bet that his masters in the camps so long ago were not the types who would do what he, their victim then, did this week. Bullies, sadists, and tormentors may not all be cowards, but the consent of folk wisdom tells us that most of them really are. It is very touching that out of all this week's news the one acknowledged and genuine hero is a man who had already suffered much.

We saw the presence of this kind of good during the terror visited upon New York and Washington six years ago. The emergency response people in both cities demonstrated immense courage exercised for the benefit of others. Most particularly in New York where the scale of the attack was so much greater and in the immediate aftermath so much more perilous. The firefighters walked into those buildings under conscious and direct hazard to their own lives, to attempt to rescue the lives of others.

It is too much to say that the examples of courage and highest altruism on display in both these events in any way "compensated" for their intrinsic horror, or for the scale of the respective tragedies. But these evil and senseless acts were denied their malignant essence — they were, neither of them, just or only scenes of willful malice and carnage.

Sept. 11 and now Virginia Tech were threaded with the terrific gifts of real courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of others, which place on the record of both days inspiring and real demonstrations of what Lincoln meant when he spoke of "the better angels of our Nature."

Liviu Librescu, the man who lived through the Holocaust, didn't leave any videos. He did leave an instance of goodness and bravery, larger in ways than Cho Seung-Hui could, or what is more grim, would have been willing, to contemplate.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "Virginia's generous hero." Globe & Mail (April 21, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2007 Rex Murphy



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