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One Morning in April...

Unspeakable tragedy strikes an American university

The morning of April 16 began like almost any other on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, also known as Virginia Tech. Students got up, went to breakfast, went to class, or went out for the day, blissfully unaware of the fact that, within mere hours, the worst tragedy ever to strike an American institute of higher education would take place on those very grounds, with the slaughter of 33 individuals by a single murderous student.

Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old resident alien from South Korea who had lived in the United States for nearly fifteen years, apparently awoke on Monday morning with one singular purpose in mind: to murder as many of his fellow students as he could, before taking his own life. His killing spree began in a dormitory, where, at 7:15 am, he gunned down an 18-year-old girl and a 22-year-old young man. Two hours later, Mr. Cho crossed the campus, entered an engineering building, chained the doors shut from the inside, and proceeded to empty clip after clip of 9mm and .22-caliber ammunition into the crowded classrooms, firing through doors, lining students up against the wall and executing them one by one, and aiming for anybody he could find in the hallways or in the rooms. Students were reduced to barricading doors with desks, playing dead, and even jumping out of third-and-fourth-story windows to escape the scene of massive carnage, which saw over sixty people injured and, when all was said and done, over thirty dead, including the killer himself.

Mistakes made by the university’s administration and the police have been made known. These include the temporary lockdown of the dormitory where the first murders occurred which was lifted despite the lack of any progress toward catching the killer (police believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that he had “left campus”), and the lack of any effort to notify students of the first events of the morning, other than a cursory, uninformative email sent well after the fact, just to name two. More errors will come to light as further investigation is conducted; however, blame cannot lie solely with police any more than it can lie solely with the administration. While both are tasked with protecting the welfare and ensuring the safety of Virginia Tech’s student body, none could have imagined a murderous rampage of this magnitude in their wildest dreams – let alone adequately prepared for, and reacted properly to, such an event.

The very idea of such senseless killing is impossible to comprehend for the vast majority of people. What could have driven a young man to such lengths that he turned to the vicious slaughter of his fellow humans as an outlet? We will likely never know; however, the content of the note Mr. Cho left behind, and information from classmates and teachers, combine to paint the picture of a troubled young man who was alone, unhappy, and likely unstable – in short, a young man who displayed virtually all of the warning signs one would look for if trying to identify a potential perpetrator of such a vicious act. The fact that little or no action was taken to intervene in the life of Mr. Cho before this incident will cause endless second-guessing, both of the university’s faculty and of the student support system in place at Virginia Tech; however, the answer is not to look around for a target of blame, but to seek to prevent such a tragedy taking place in the future.

The grief being felt by the families of these students, professors, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends is impossible to measure, or to put into words. As Nikki Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, said, “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning.” Those involved must be experiencing so many different thoughts, feelings, and reactions, and will deal with many more in the future. How can people respond to such an unthinkable atrocity, to the act of such reckless hate? Many of us “on the outside” are currently experiencing our own forms of sorrow, rage, and disgust in response to this tragic event. Debates over gun control have been re-ignited, with special attention being paid to a bill recently voted down in the Virginia state House of Representatives which would have allowed students and employees to carry registered handguns on campus. A Virginia Tech spokesman praised the negative outcome at the time, saying that the bill’s defeat would “help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.” On the contrary – I do not wish to enter into a debate on gun control and the second amendment here, but had this passed, and even one student in that building been carrying a weapon on their person, how many lives could have been saved?

Pundits, politicians, and commentators have offered their own observations on the situation, as well. On ESPN Radio’s Dan Patrick Show, baseball commentator and hall of fame player Joe Morgan lamented that, since this did not take place during football or basketball season, the students will regrettably be “forced to heal on alone” - and then had the audacity to compare this massacre of over thirty innocent men and women to the Don Imus scandal of the week before. This latter sentiment was echoed by Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama, who directly compared Monday’s “physical violence” at Virginia Tech to the “verbal violence” of the since-fired radio “shock jock.” Nikki Giovanni's address at Tuesday's vigil included this statement:
We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.
These statements are amazingly insulting to the victims of this act, and no greater purpose is served by comparing them to baby elephants, and equating the senseless loss of life to the offending of sensibilities.

Not all of the disparate developments and responses provoked by this tragedy are negative, though. The Virginia Tech family has been brought together, thirty-three people short, in a way that only tragedy can accomplish. Ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives, with ordinary quibbles, complaints, and trials, have had their lives once again forcibly put into perspective, and the entire nation has been made aware, once again, how precious life is, and how quickly – and pointlessly – it can be stuffed out. From the ashes of such a horrific series of events have also arisen tales of unimaginable heroism, such as that displayed by Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor and émigré from Romania who used his body to block the door, while being shot, to give his students an opportunity to save their own lives. As’s Paul Mirengoff so aptly put it, “More than sixty years after [the Holocaust survivor’s] liberation, the rescued became the rescuer.” He continued:
In a 1974 speech in which he introduced returning POW John McCain to the CPAC convention, Ronald Reagan asked where we find such men. He answered, “We [find] them in our streets, in the offices, the shops and the working places of our country and on the farms.” Professor Librescu's heroism reminds us that we also find them among those who come to this country from other lands.
It is difficult to put into words a personal response, or a personal reaction, to such heroism – or to the unspeakable act of barbarism which forced such people as Dr. Librescu to become the heroes that they became. As for the rest of the students and faculty in the vicinity, who acted to save their own lives rather than sacrificing themselves to save others, no ill can be spoken. An individual cannot be faulted for fleeing from danger, or for being less than prepared to act heroically in the face of mortal peril. Not everybody is created in the mold of a Todd Beamer and his companions on United Airlines flight 93; nor are they made of the same stuff as a Prof. Librescu, who had faced death so many times in the past, before rushing to finally meet it so as to stave off its arrival for the young people under his charge. This is not to imply that any of these men and women are lesser people for their acts of self-preservation; however, one can only wonder how many lives could have been saved had there been an active resistance on the part of students who were being lined up against the wall and executed, or who were jumping out of the windows to avoid the fate of their peers.

One fact remains above all others: a person never knows how they will react to a given situation until they have been placed in it, and those who have not been in such a horrifying, gruesome situation as those students at Virginia Tech faced Monday morning should be very slow indeed to judge the actions of those who were there. We all hope that we would react like Professor Librescu did; however, as a commenter at put it, “Great people do great things. I like to say that in a moment of terror like that I would do the same thing, but in my heart, I don't know if I would have the courage.” Human nature being what it is, I have a hard time believing that many of those people who made it through the ordeal, while their classmates were perishing around them, will not spend at least part of every day for the rest of their lives reliving, rethinking, and second-guessing the events of that morning, and their corresponding actions, and wondering if there was anything they could have done differently – or could have done at all – which, though it would have placed them at even greater risk, might have saved the life of even one of their fellows.

I know that I would. Every day.

So let us keep in our thoughts, prayers, and memories those who were lost, and those whom they left behind, and contemplate how best to react and to respond to this tragedy. Rather than stepping onto a soapbox and beating a political drum, a far more productive response to this event would be to follow the lead of a Virginia Tech student, present at the scene of the killings, who wrote an email to his family in which he recounted the story told him, amidst the events of the morning, of her own ordeal, when she looked out into the hallway of the building where the murders were taking place, and came face to face with Mr. Cho.
"The girl told me that when she saw the shooter, she saw his face. She saw that he was sad, and she told me that she actually felt sorry for him. This didn't hit me right away, because at that time, everything was very chaotic. But after returning home later in the day and realizing the magnitude of this incident, I began to think about the girl's story and how personal this really was. I realized that this girl literally stared down the barrel of a 9mm handgun, but she looked beyond it and saw the man holding it. She had mercy on this man as he was threatening her life with his very presence. For the rest of the day, the death toll climbed, and I kept thinking about the victims, their families, and how this would affect the world's view of the school that I call my home. But still more, I thought about the gunman."
Then this student, in an act which we can only look upon in wonder, requested of his family that they “say a prayer for [the killer] by name.” He continued:
“Say a prayer for his family by name. Do not curse him, though you may curse this event. As Christians – as people – we are called to be merciful. I want to be as merciful as the girl I sat with…today. I know I will be filled with this inevitable feeling of anger, and maybe hatred toward this man when they announce his name, but I will put that aside, and I will ask God to bless the family that survives him. God loves this man as much as He loves the people he killed. So let us not pray for the 32 victims and the single gunman, instead let us pray for the 33 human souls that met God today.”
That this student, who saw the carnage himself, who lost friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and who had his life changed forever by events out of his control, can approach the aftermath of this event with such maturity, serenity, perspective, and forgiveness should send a strong, clear signal to us all. Let us never forget the events of this tragic morning in April, 2007 – and let us come together as a stronger community, and strive to be better, stronger individuals as a result.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a leadership fellow with the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia, where he also studies Classics. He is a Director of conservative weblog, is a columnist for conservative newsmagazine Human Events, and has a weekly column in the Athens,
GA Banner-Herald newspaper.


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