In the aftermath of September 11th America became, to itself, a nation of heroes.
We bestowed the word amongst ourselves freely, as if the smallest of gestures – displaying patriotic placards and vehicular flags – were heroic. As if we imagined that a nation full of heroes would somehow be safer, more secure.
Six years on we still fling the word hero around amply, carelessly, in every direction. Every soldier is a hero, and every protestor. So too every insider who speaks out, years too late, and every journalist late just the same. All are heroes to someone, of course, but are they to be heroes to us all?
Our democratization of the word hero has amounted to a theft of its once lofty status, and has reduced it to but a shadow of its former self. A nation in which everyone is a hero sadly has no heroes. A nation in which all men were created equal has come to mistake this to mean that all men are equally heroic.
In the wake of several recent and true acts of heroism we would be wise to restore the word’s true meaning, and remind ourselves that most heroic endeavors are those unscripted and quietly performed.
Witness the courage displayed by once and future heroine Pfc. Jessica Lynch in her testimony to Congress in late April. “The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate tales,” she told a House committee investigating incidences of wholly invented publicity disseminated by an administration adept at well-told and uplifting myths.
Truth matters for its own sake, of course, but it matters also because it is our only defense against the efforts of those who would exploit truth to serve their own ends. “The truth of war is not always easy to hear but it is always more heroic than the hype”, spoke this slight and shy young lady from West Virginia, who having proudly served and suffered for her country proudly served it once again by reminding it of the importance of truth.
Most of all, Private Lynch’s testimony was remarkable for the uncommon bravery that brought it forth, a bravery radiant from someone who has steadfastly refused to allow herself to be recreated into something she is not. How easy it would have been to simply have lived the lie, have basked in staged glory and have reaped its undeserved rewards. How many, when so tempted, would prove to be made with the same mettle?
Yes, Jessica, we are indeed capable of determining our own ideals of heroism, and you are a shining example.
Witness also former NFL player Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan during April of 2004. In the days following September 11th, rather than succumb to collective glorification and patriotic triumphalism, this man chose to forsake monetary riches, gained playing a game, in order to defend his country in the way he felt he best could. Whether or not you agree with what he saw as his duty, at least acknowledge the heroism in following his own clarion call to it.
Witness further the courage of a group of recent high school graduates, Presidential Scholars, so recognized for being “some of America’s most outstanding graduating high-school seniors”, as they were recently honored at the White House by President Bush.
After a few scripted words from the president, one of the students, Mari Oye, from Wellesley, Massachusetts, handed Mr. Bush a letter she had written, and which had been signed by more than a third of the students in attendance.
The letter read: “As members of the Presidential Scholars class of 2007, we have been told that we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants.”
The president read the letter, looked up, and said “America doesn’t torture people.” Mari squared up and bravely responded, “If you look specifically at what we said, we ask you to cease illegal renditions. Please remove your signing statement to the McCain anti-torture bill.”
Such heroism in ones so young offers a hope that America may one day once again be in good hands.
Witness finally the heroes who don’t make the news: the teacher who takes a struggling student and spurs her to excel; the tired housecleaner who gives what little of her free time to volunteer at the food bank; the attorney who could’ve made partner but instead makes a difference defending the defenseless – all shining examples of uncommon heroism missed in our societal haste to put the next talentless celebrity or tainted politician up on pedestal.
So frequently over the course of our lives do we overlook such extraordinary acts of bravery accomplished by seemingly ordinary persons – so much anonymous heroism.