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Heroism Shines over Darkness of Arizona Tragedy

by on January 13, 2011 7:31 AM

This past Friday as I looked ahead to this week’s column, I was grappling for a relevant topic. Then I heard the news from Arizona. My inclination was to write full of rage, banging out a denouncement of someone or something. That is often the initial response to shocking events.

Immediately after events like last Saturday’s shooting in Tucson come speculation and maneuvering by people of all sides for political gain. Before all the facts are known, operatives are weighing the response of their politician, or the head of their political group.

No doubt last Saturday afternoon people at the highest levels of the pro-gun lobby as well as those of gun-control advocacy groups were deciding how quickly to proceed publicly. Some believe political points can be made if your group positions itself deftly in the panicked aftermath.

Entrenched powerful interests resist change no matter how terrible the costs. In the short term these events spark discussion, but in the long term gun laws remain mostly unchanged, and politics go on as normal.

How much changed after Columbine in 1999; or Red Lake, Minnesota, in 2005; or the Amish school shooting in 2006; or Virginia Tech in 2007; or Northern Illinois in 2008?

I go into high schools and the only real change is that the doors are locked and, in some inner-city schools, you must pass through metal detectors. That’s about it.

These events highlight the very worst of American society. They bring to the fore some smoldering anger, or feeling of disenfranchisement of a lone gunman. They force us to face the facts that there are demons who live amongst us.

But what good, if any, comes out of these events?

While they do highlight the worst of our nation, they also contain stories—some simple, some hopeful, some heroic—of the very best of our nation.

Who can hear this story and not shed a tear for Christina Green? At nine years old she had already become engaged in the political process—and it took her life. There is Daniel Hernandez, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ 20-year-old intern. He ran to her, while others fled, taking action to help save her life. There are the selfless people who subdued the shooter, putting themselves at risk while the assailant was getting ready to reload.

There is Dorwan Stoddard a 76-year-old man who pulled his wife to the ground and shielded her body with his, giving his life for hers. Do the values of any nation get any nobler than that?

The heroic actions of people on that day and at that time should always shine over the darkness and evil of that act.

Even in Happy Valley we are not immune. In September of 1996 a lone person walked to the HUB Lawn and opened fire, killing one student and injuring another before Brendon Malovrh, another student, risked his own life to stop her.

For days afterward I was in a state of shock every time I drove through campus. My hometown, my school. This was not supposed to happen here.

While it is so much easier to focus on the darkness, into these moments light emerges. None was ever brighter than the Pennsylvania Amish community struck by a 2006 school shooting that claimed the lives of five girls, ages 7 to 13.

In the wake of that terrible day, members of that community extended forgiveness and even prayed for the dead gunman. They went to the gunman’s family to comfort them. They truly lived the faith they preached and walked the path they professed. How many of us professing a faith based on a forgiving God would walk that talk?

Just hours after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated on April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy stepped onto an outdoor stage in the dark Indianapolis night. In that moment, he spoke words that are as important and relevant now as they were then:

“Aeschylus, my favorite poet, once wrote: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country….”

In the difficult days ahead we would do well to heed these words rather than scheme to see what political points can be scored on the backs of the victims of this tragedy. Let us aspire to reach the strength and unity of the noble examples that emerged from those terrible moments in Tucson.

As the national holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., approaches, we must remember that the good we do lives on while the evil-doer does not.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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