Historians, philosophers have explored the nature of courage

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When a deranged gunman began his shooting rampage at Virginia Tech's Norris Hall on Monday, most of the dozens of students in the vicinity cowered under desks or fled, according to witness accounts. But, before being fatally shot himself, 76-year-old Professor Liviu Librescu thrust himself against his classroom door and held off Cho Seunghui long enough to allow many of his students to jump to safety. The professor's heroism gives rise to some awkward questions: How could a single gunman kill 30 people in one building without being overpowered? Why are acts of courage like Prof. Librescu's so uncommon?... When considering a tragedy like Virginia Tech, people naturally wonder whether they would be"perfect in courage" if confronted with similar circumstances. Would they have reacted like Mr. Librescu? Would they have risked their lives to save others?

William I. Miller, author of an acclaimed book on the topic, The Mystery of Courage, believes that for most of us, the answer to those questions is no."That's just classic grand, heroic behaviour," Prof. Miller, a historian and law professor at the University of Michigan, said of Mr. Librescu's deeds. Such heroic acts are"pretty rare," he said.

He wonders whether such acts will be come only rarer, whether Western society has become so risk-averse that we are increasingly incapable of heroism. He despairs when he sees kids in his Michigan neighbourhood wearing"armour at the level of a medieval knight" as they learn to ride a bicycle and hears that touch football has been banned at the local elementary school because the ball is pointed.

"We so shield our children and ourselves from any encounter where we're called on to deliver," he said.

His research into courage led him to study soldiers' memoirs, particularly from the U.S. Civil War, and what he found is that it is difficult to predict who will behave courageously under fire."One of the things that features very prominently in these memoirs is that people are always sizing up everyone else in the unit: 'Who's the courageous guy, and who's the coward?' There are some tendencies but they can never quite predict. The little nerdy accountant turns out to be a great soldier and the barroom brawler turns out to just crack when he hears gunfire."

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