The Spectacle Blog

Virginia Tech and the Cultivation of Courage

By on 4.18.07 | 11:22AM

I remember going for an evening walk with my young wife some years ago. As we strolled past a heavily wooded yard with a house barely visible, I suddenly heard the menacing growl of a very obviously big and mean dog. My immediate reaction was to run. The big muscles in my legs flexed and fired. The only thing that stopped me was my wife's anguished cry, "Hunter, don't leave me!" I forced down the fear impulse, backed up and put myself between her and the threatening sound. We walked on and nothing happened.

When Professor Librescu, an old man, a septuagenarian whose body had been through the terrors of the Holocaust, spotted a terrible threat he pushed his weight against a door and tried to keep a killer from murdering his students. All but two of the students and Librescu got away. In an email exchange yesterday, one of my fellow Redstate contributors wondered why able-bodied young men would have chosen to run instead of coming to the assistance of their heroic professor.

Thinking of my own experience and looking at what happened in that besieged classroom in Virginia, I think I know the answer. Liviu Librescu had seen death up close much earlier in life. He very probably saw his friends and neighbors killed and had many opportunities to measure his own reactions in light of right and wrong, valor and heroism. It is no surprise to me that such a man would resist rather than run. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was. The young men in that classroom were probably a lot like me in the situation with the dog. They were untested and had probably never been in serious physical danger. More important, they had probably never stopped to consider what they would expect of themselves in a life and death situation.

There are a couple of lessons that come to mind. The one that many conservatives will point to is that we have a culture that does not successfully impute manliness. We already knew the ethic of dedication to wife and children had slipped badly. We knew less well that we weren't raising boys with expectations of self-sacrifice and protectiveness toward others. But this is the smaller of the two lessons.

The greater lesson is that we should all take pains to reflect on who we want to be and what we really believe. It was once common to speak of the examined life. That phrase fell under the massive heap of self-help materials and endless reflection on why we don't have a better sex life, more money, and a better job. But the examined life goes deeper than that. It comes down to knowing who you are. Without it, you will almost inevitably run in the face of danger, quail before the bully, and excel in self-justification after the fact rather than action in the relevant frame.

Jeff Emanuel made the point in his post that none of us know how we will react in these situations. I believe he is right about that, but I am at least equally sure that we can prepare ourselves for the event and drastically increase the chance that we WILL do what we merely hope we would.

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