Va Tech: Memento Vivere (You Must Live)

April 24th, 2007

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Last week, as the news of the horror at Virginia Tech sank in around the world, Australia’s Prime Minister was quick to decry America’s “gun culture.” South Korean talk shows noted that the perpetrator was really an American, and that his violent act was no reflection on his South Korean roots. An Argentine newspaper opined that this was unsurprising in a nation that advocates the “use of violence to achieve liberty.”

Basically, the nations of the world have been quick to qualify their condolences with scorn, anger, accusations, and other unfriendly sentiments. What a contrast to the last major national tragedy on 9/11, when even the headlines in France read: “We Are All Americans Now.”

First, being an American, this upsets and angers me. How dare these world leaders and opinion makers use the slaughter of innocents as an opportunity to poke a finger in America’s eye? Their insensitivity does not reflect well on their own national character.

And then I thought with dismay that this outpouring of negative sentiment is also the latest indicator of how low America’s reputation has sunk with the world. The fact that South Koreans seem to be genuinely concerned that all Koreans in America will pay the price of one madman is truly sad. Maybe that reflects a certain insularity (or peninsularity) of a nearly homogenous nation, but it also reflects how the American people are viewed in the world. Angry. Vengeful. Racist.

But here’s the real lesson the world should draw from this horrible event: this is a good and even remarkable country. We will be fine, despite this tragedy, and despite all the damage that has been done to our standing in the world.

How can you draw that lesson? By listening to what the victims are telling us.

Stack Clark played in the marching band, counseled other students as a Resident Advisor, and had a 4.0 grade average, which was taking him well on his way to a career in neuroscience. He died trying to help the first victim of the shootings. He was an African American man from Georgia.

Reema Samaha was from Fairfax, Virginia. She loved the stage, as an actress and a dancer, but had decided to major in urban planning so she could “help solve the problems of the world,” according to CNN She traveled to Lebanon over the summer, where her family was originally from.

Kevin Granata was an engineering professor, who coached childrens’ sports teams and was working on movement dynamics for people with cerebral palsy. He was a Caucasian military veteran who lived in Virginia. Daniel Perez Cueva, originally from Peru, was a star student and athlete, whose mother was working multiple jobs to achieve her dream of a college education for her son. Mary Read was Korean American, described as sweet young woman who played lacrosse and the clarinet and knitted for her family. G.V. Loanathan, from Tamil Nadu, India, had received multiple teaching awards for his excellence in 25 years at Virginia Tech. Liviu Librescu, a Romanian Holocaust survivor, sacrificed himself to save his students…

This is America. These victims were Arab, Hispanic, Latino, Indian, Korean, Chinese, African American and Caucasian. They were Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim, as far as we know. They were from big cities and small towns. They are remembered for loving their families, for being caring, community-minded people. They are remembered for having dreams, and for having the opportunity to achieve their dreams. They will always be mourned by family and friends who are devastated by their loss, by the violent act that claimed their lives.

This is America. And that’s not just self-congratulatory flag-waving, either. If the people of the world would just look past the image we project on their movie and television screens, this is what they would actually see.

We do not celebrate death. We do not love violence. We love our families. We celebrate our children. We want to do good and great things with our lives and in the world. We’re not perfect, but the gates of opportunity are open to people of all hues, beliefs, and backgrounds, as they are at Virginia Tech.

Could we do better? Of course. We still have a long way to travel toward full equality of opportunity and justice at home. These acts of extreme violence are far too common. But consider that these people were not just side by side in death; they were in life, too. You just don’t see that anywhere else.

That is the story these ghosts are whispering to a world that no longer believes in America.

The memorial we owe the victims, and all those who have lost their lives in Iraq – both Iraqi and American – is to restore the faith people justifiably once had in this nation.