Virginia Tech Remembrance
April 16, 2007 was the worst day of my life.
Even ten years later, I cannot fully describe what the Commonwealth, the Virginia Tech community, the thirty-two families and so many survivors went through on that day and in the following weeks and years.
A year and six months into my term as Governor, Anne and I had just arrived in Tokyo to lead a delegation of Virginia business leaders on an overseas trade mission. We ate dinner and turned in after a long flight only to be awakened around midnight with word that there was an active shooting underway back home. We turned on CNN and quickly decided to return on the next flight home.
Jet-lagged and grief-stricken we arrived in Washington and then flew with President George W. Bush and the First Lady to Blacksburg to meet with families and address a community gathering the day after the shooting.
We shed tears with families of students and faculty members who had lost their lives. We gathered with thousands of Hokies — and we were all Hokies — to mourn and to celebrate the lives of the precious people who were killed. Anne and I went to visit those recovering in nearby hospitals. We thanked brave first responders who had seen the unforgettable horror of classrooms filled with bullet-riddled bodies, many with ringing cell phones in their pockets as frantic family members tried to reach them.
I decided immediately to form a panel of experts to investigate everything that happened that day and issue a complete public report outlining what went wrong. I was warned it could bring a lawsuit down on the Commonwealth to admit wrongdoing, but I didn’t care. I wanted us to do anything we could do to reduce the chance of such a tragedy ever happening again.
The report was unsparing and comprehensive. It led Virginia to make some changes in mental health and privacy laws. It inspired changes in campus safety protocols around the nation that are still used today. We learned that a flaw in our background records check system had allowed the killer to purchase a weapon even though he was legally barred from doing so due to a court judgment that he was mentally ill and dangerous. I was able to make a partial fix to our system via executive order but efforts to create a truly comprehensive background check system have failed in Virginia and Congress again and again.
The time created a bond with so many of the Virginia Tech families. I continue to be in awe of their strength and resilience, and I cherish their friendship all these years later. We worked together during my time as Governor and one of my last meetings before I left office was to invite them to a reception at the Governor’s Mansion. I continue to visit with them on Capitol Hill, to help the young survivors and children of professors who were killed with references and career advice. I am proud of these young people.
The story I keep coming back to is that of Professor Liviu Librescu, a professor of engineering who blocked the door of his classroom and urged his students to jump out the window to safety. He was shot again and again as he protected his students and all, save graduate student Minal Panchal, were able to live because he chose to give up his life to protect them.
Professor Librescu was a 76 year-old Romanian-born Jew. He had survived the Holocaust, being imprisoned as a boy in a Nazi labor camp. Many of his family members were killed. He chose to stay in Romania and became a gifted academic but his career stalled because he would not swear allegiance to the Communist Party. After years of trying to emigrate to Israel, and with the personal intervention of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he was allowed to move to Israel in 1978 and became a professor at the Technion in Haifa.
In 1985, Professor Librescu accepted a one year sabbatical position teaching at Virginia Tech and he and his wife, also a Holocaust survivor, moved to Blacksburg. They loved the community and university so much that they stayed for 22 years. Liviu survived the Holocaust, the Soviet takeover of Romania and so much else. But he couldn’t survive gun violence in the United States.
April 16, 2007 was a different day for Professor Librescu than any of the students in his class. It was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day. The day is an annual opportunity for mankind to reflect upon the unparalleled tragedy of the Holocaust, especially the death of 6 million Jews. The Professor was aware — standing in the doorway — that the day was sacred.
Two years later, Anne and I were in Israel on Yom HaShoah and were invited by Prime Minister Netanyahu to be his guests at the commemorative worship service at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. And during the service I came to see the day as a time to think about not just the Holocaust and its victims but all the classes of people involved and affected. Some were victims, some survivors. Some were heroes, some perpetrators. Some were unaware but many were bystanders — people who knew what was going on but chose to do nothing. Bystanders play a part in most of the great tragedies in life.
As the years have gone by since the terrible tragedy, there have been other horrible massacres. The Newtown shooting in 2012 saw the slaughter of little schoolchildren and their teachers. Last June, 49 people were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I visited the site a few months ago and found myself overcome with emotion. Deep inside me was the unarticulated wish that never would there be a worse shooting than Virginia Tech. I clung to hope that we would learn something and mass shootings would stop.
We all have a choice. Not all of us can be heroes like Liviu Librescu. I don’t think I have his courage. But we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to decide that we will stop being bystanders.