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Mass shootings and heroes: Should you risk your life?

September 4, 2012

As 40-year-old Wade Michael Page went on a murderous rampage with a 9 mm handgun in a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, there was one man who would rather die than see others shot to death.

Satwant Singh Kaleka, founding member and president of the temple, picked up a religious ceremonial knife and fought the gunman. It was a knife against a firearm. A deeply religious and peaceful man against an Army veteran who had lost his mind. The outcome was predictable. After a scuffle that reportedly lasted a minute or two, the religious leader was fatally shot and died at the scene.

Photo of campus of Sikh Temple where hero helped save lives

Image via CBS News. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

But during those precious few moments when Kaleka fought the battle he could not possibly win, he also distracted the gunman long enough for others in the temple to escape. He sacrificed his life so others would survive.

The early August shooting resulted in six dead and several others wounded. But if not for Kaleka’s bravery and determination, the outcome would have been worse. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) shook the hand of Kaleka’s adult son and told him that his dad was a hero.

Turn back to the spring of 2007, during one of the worst mass shootings in American history, when a 23-year-old English major was in the process of fatally shooting 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech.

The campus was in chaos, gunshots were echoing from everywhere, but a professor in the middle of class saw tragedy coming. Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor and aeronautics engineer, slammed his classroom door closed as the gunman approached. He yelled at the students to flee, and they ran for the windows to jump to safety. As the students emptied the room, the older man struggled to hold the door closed until, finally, the gunman pointed his gun toward the door and unloaded the ammunition through the door, into the body of the professor.

He, too, was fatally injured, yet in the minute or two that he held the gunman back, several young adults escaped the room and made it to safety. Afterward, students expressed their love, admiration and respect for the deceased professor, who they said should be remembered forever as a hero.

Moral responsibility in deadly situations

No one can question the courage and the indomitable spirit of Satwant Singh Kaleka and Liviu Librescu. They gave their lives so others may live. Both were older men. Both had come to America to build a better life. Both succeeded. They both also felt a sense of responsibility to give back to the community, Kaleka a place of worship and Librescu an education upon which students could build their careers.

Yet they also had one more thing in common: the escalation of responsibility for someone’s development to a heartfelt obligation to defend their lives.

Kaleka and Librescu are rare individuals. Not many of us have the conviction to risk our lives to save casual associates or even strangers. Thank God some of us do. But is that kind of courage the only moral choice?

Criticizing victims in the Batman shooting

In the aftermath of the Colorado movie theater shootings during the premiere of a Batman film in July, an attack in which 12 were killed and dozens injured, many critics loudly and belligerently asked where the heroes were that night. Where were the Kalekas? Where were the Librescus? The question came with a tone of condemnation aimed toward the people in the theater — the victims — for not risking their lives to stop the killer. The moral condemnation that underpins these questions assumes that putting one’s life on the line to save a room packed with hundreds of strangers is the only morally acceptable thing to do.

In some circumstances, it certainly may be, especially if you are trained to deal with the situation: hundreds of panic-stricken people scrambling in the dark, through clouds of smoke generated from smoke bombs, with gunfire puncturing the screams above the noise of the action movie, with an insane criminal brandishing multiple weapons walking up and down the aisle picking people off like it’s some kind of demented video game.

Only a very small percentage of Americans are prepared for something like that. Highly trained law enforcement officers are, but they are trained to deal with those situations as a team, not lone professionals. Trained military soldiers? Certainly. But then again, they operate as a team. Experienced martial artists? They have far less of a chance than the law enforcement officers do.

But those are the individuals who stand the best chance of taking out that gunman and going home to their families. For the rest of us, approaching that gunman is akin to signing our death certificates, just like Kaleka and Librescu did. Is that what’s required of normal citizens to escape the criticism and belligerence of loudmouth social critics?

To whom do we owe our lives?

This is not a question with a clear answer. Moral philosophers debate these topics forever, and there never is a clear conclusion. The critics who ridicule the people who attended the theater that night are puffing their chests like apes in a display of bravado that, if tested, would likely result in urine flowing down their legs before they dropped to the ground in cover — if they even had the presence of mind to take cover at all.

There were no cowards that night at the Batman shootings. There were only normal people trying to survive. And that’s an acceptable option.

Picture a father in the theater with his wife and young son, a special night for the three of them to make a memory and let the young boy enjoy a midnight movie and popcorn with mom and dad while watching a new superhero film.  Out of nowhere, smoke bombs fill the theater, gunshots crack and everyone flies into panic. People scream and run and jump over seats, others lay bleeding and dying. What does this father do? What does this mother do?

Natural instincts demand that they protect the child and get out of the theater alive. They hit the floor and lay on top of the boy. They look for the nearest escape route, and as soon as possible they get up and run, through the theater doors, out of the building, as far from the gunman as possible. The father, the mother and child escape a bloody massacre alive. Does the father go back in to fight the gunman? Does he risk facing the shooter when he would likely die, leaving a widow and a young child behind? Does he not have an obligation to provide for, protect and care for that family now and forever? Does he lay that obligation aside?

It’s a legitimate question, but no one should be criticized for putting family first. I respect, admire and hold in the highest esteem the actions of Kaleka and Librescu. But for some people, family is and forever will be the top priority. And that’s OK, too.

Details on Kaleka shooting reported by CBS News. 

Details on Librescu shooting reported by Fox News. 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. V.E.G. permalink
    December 5, 2012 5:53 pm

    Best of all, Satwant Singh Kaleka’s son is an Emmy Award Winner!

  2. V.E.G. permalink
    September 20, 2014 1:26 pm

    There are so many heroes on Sandy Hook:
    Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung
    Mary Joy Sherlach
    Rachel Marie D’Avino
    Anne Marie Murphy
    Victoria Leigh Soto (cousin of Benjamin Franklin)
    Lauren Gabrielle Rousseau
    Jesse McCord Lewis (a direct descendant of Cherokee Nation)

  3. V.E.G. permalink
    September 20, 2014 1:27 pm

    Mary Joy Sherlach is the cousin of the creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar! Blow me down! She has the strength of spinach!

  4. V.E.G. permalink
    September 20, 2014 1:28 pm

    Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung is the distant cousin of Mary Miles Minter and Alan Burton Hall!

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