You are not a hero for being hit by a plane...* And other meditations on the cheapening of a meaningful term.
I will admit to some rancor here. Maybe even an irrational amount of it.* I began writing this post a week or so ago in anger, and the source of my ire was Adrianne Haslet-Davis. The dancer, who lost part of her left leg in last year's Boston Marathon bombing, tromped out of a Meet the Press segment in protest because she felt "disrespected" by host David Gregory. See, she had insisted that no one utter the names of the bombers who caused her injuries, and when Gregory—who is, after all, a newsman, with, like, news to cover—said he could offer no such assurances, she ditched the show.
At which I was motivated to muse of Ms. Haslet-Davis... Excuse me...and who the hell are YOU again?
I'm sure she would have an answer for me, and an unflinching, assertive one at that. These people, victims of America's mass public tragedies, see themselves as possessors (and custodians) of a certain cultural gravitas. It is as if their wounds have earned them the right to present themselves as the authorized conscience of a nation, recognized spokespeople for the aggrieved, utterly above reproach, unassailable in thought and deed. They claim moral authority. They expect to be heard, to be listened to, and, like Ms. Haslet-Davis, they will dictate terms for their participation.
Whatever specific words one might use in characterizing their status, the attitude that comes through loud and clear is YOU OWE US.
Although this phenomenon has always been part of the American ethos, it kicked in with a vengeance following 9/11, of course, and has been on display with each tragedy since: VTech, Sandy Hook, the Marathon, and so forth.
One is hard pressed to diminish any of what happened on 9/11. But, you know, human suffering was not invented on that somber day...and it was not invented in this country, either. (The terrorists might argue that 9/11 was partly inspired by the degree of human suffering we inflicted. I'm not agreeing, just making the point.) Besides which, the 9/11 survivors benefit from a huge and ongoing support structure. They are given a hero's welcome everywhere they go. They are formally remembered, honored, each year on the anniversary. Plus there's the little matter of the millions they received from the government (which is to say, from us, as taxpayers) in recompense: averaging a cool $2.08 million per 9/11 family.
No such remedies were forthcoming to the 645 Americans who were murdered in Chicago in 2001, officially the murder capital of America that year (not counting 9/11 itself). Included among those 645 were three people who died without fanfare, with nary a mention, on 9/11 itself. They got lost in the embers of a nationwide cataclysm. Still, they had families, loved ones. They counted.
I started blogging on such themes back in 2007, when it was still considered tacky, if not vaguely unpatriotic, to even question the victims of 9/11 in any fashion. In the intervening years I have consistently criticized the hubris of the 9/11 families who apparently felt entitled to control the collective public memory of the event, as if they owned the tragedy and it was theirs to exploit, if any exploiting were to be done. One is mindful of Lisa Beamer's attempts to trademark the phrase "Let's Roll," famously uttered by her late husband, Todd, as the passengers on Flight 93 prepared to storm the cockpit. It is reported that she has since remarried, "moved on."
A lot of these folks also do inspirational speaking about "finding the courage to move on"—which is a tad easier to do, perhaps, when you've go $2 million to work with. Or when you've got people crowd-funding so they can throw money at you for a new boat or a prosthetic that enables you to keep on dancing and bloviating. And why not...you're a hero, aren't you?
We can argue about whether Sully Sullenberger was a hero for what happened that day out on the Hudson. You may say yes, I may be more skeptical. But at least Sully did something. He controlled the moment. What did Haslet-Davis do in Boston except get blown up? Please excuse me for sounding callous or hard-hearted; it's just that this needs to be said, and thought about. (For an even better example, go to the Sullenberger post and read about the guy who almost got killed on Everest. What a peach.)
You are not a hero for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, per se. (I'm sure I'll catch hell for saying this, but you are not a hero for having a child shot to pieces in a school. You deserve our compassion, our profound empathy; I cried along with the rest of America after Sandy Hook. That said, our tears did not confer hero status on the bereaved.) You are not a hero for being hit by a hijacked plane or injured by a bomb while doing what you love: running a marathon. Now, surely there are things people might do after the plane or the bomb that qualify as heroic. Surely there were legitimate stories of heroism to come out of the Marathon. But...but...in our rush to canonize...let's not lose sight of something important.
Heroism is active and purposeful. Heroism is aware. The hero understands that he or she is facing the abyss, and proceeds anyway. For my money, and I could only wish society's, you are far more of a hero for boarding a plane to some god-forsaken place like Afghanistan to avenge the people who were hit by a plane on 9/11. Read, for example, about this man, who now lives in a group home that helps veterans transition to civilian life. (Go to the page, scroll down a bit and click on the name Seth Howard.) I do some publicity for the cause. He has almost surely earned the right to wear the "hero" label...as have the men who run the outreach that helps him, Vets For Vets. Where is their $2.08 million? Each day's paper contains tragic stories of other young men and women who went off to war and came back changed, if they came back at all. The stories come and go, they meld into one another, generating barely a ripple despite their heroic elements.
As for Adrianne "how dare you say Tsarnaev in my presence!" Haslet-Davis? A hero? Not so much.
* Also, this won't be my best work. I'm writing it in a very narrow window between other activities, and I simply didn't have time to include every example or make my words as persuasive as I'd like them to be. Just think about all this, is all I ask.