The recent national tragedy at Virginia Tech is the seeming escalation of similar incidents in recent history. On Monday, April 16, 2007 thirty-two people were murdered at the rural Virginia school, the largest such massacre to occur in United States history. Only two months before, on February 12, 2007, a shooter at the Trolley Square shopping mall in Salt Lake City, Utah took the lives of five unsuspecting bystanders. While the immense tragedy of these and kindred events can fill one with a measure of despair, the sometimes unlikely heroes that arise from such catastrophes can rekindle in our hearts the hope for good that exists in a world noticeably brimming with hate. And we marvel at how some sink to become killers, while others rise to heroism.
At least one hero paid the ultimate sacrifice amid the chaos at Virginia Tech. Liviu Librescu spent last Monday morning as he had numerous Mondays before, in Room 204 with his students. But no one could have predicted his last lesson would be one taught by his heroic actions rather than by his knowledge for theoretical mathematics. When shooter Seung-Hui Cho attempted to storm Professor Librescu’s classroom, the seventy-six year old Holocaust survivor physically held the door shut while encouraging his students to jump to safety. It was not until the last student leaped from the second story window that Cho was finally able to gain entrance into the classroom where he fatally shot Liviu Librescu.
The police responding to the recent Salt Lake City shooting, including a quick thinking off-duty officer, were the touted heroes in that tragedy. Coming to the aid of a public threatened by the disturbed shooter, Sulejmen Talovic, their skillful actions ended the life of the well armed young man before he could take even more innocent lives.
The Trolley Square killer Sulejmen and the Virginia Tech hero Liviu began life in similar circumstances. Sulejmen witnessed suffering unlike a tender young boy should. Growing up in war torn Bosnia, Sulejmen was only four when he and his mother fled on foot after Serb forces overtook their village. For five years he lived as a refugee in Bosnia, before his family moved to the United States, settling at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Utah . While in Bosnia, Sulejmen lived in Srebrenica, only a couple years before thousands of men and boys were slaughtered there in what would later be known as Europe’s worst massacre of civilians since World War II.
Growing up during World War II, Liviu was still a toddler when Hitler came to power legally. He lived much of his early life amid unfathomable persecution. Though untold millions were victims of the widespread Holocaust genocide, miraculously, Liviu survived. Several years passed before he escaped Communist Romania, and eventually made his way to the rolling green hills of Virginia.
Sulejmen Talovic and Liviu Librescu. Each began life as most of us could never imagine. Both were survivors of their murderous, warring homelands. Yet each fashioned a strikingly different life from the other.
One dropped out of school before obtaining a high school diploma. Another was an internationally renown professor of aerospace engineering. One was a loner, opting for isolation over companionship. Another was a family man, well esteemed by friends and colleagues alike. One came to the United States, unable to forget the evil that had beset him in his youth. Another came to the United States having survived evil, only to come face to face with it again. One was a killer shot by heroes, the other a hero, shot by a killer.