Tuesday, May 4, 2010

America's Hero Deficit

Following the coverage of the attempted bombing of Times Square from afar, the description of the men who reported the smoking car as "heroes" struck me as unusual, if not odd. One piece in the NY Times declared, "Vendors Who Alerted Police Called Heroes." I wondered: Heroes? Really? Sure, they reported the smoking SUV, but was that act really heroic? Even the guy who reported the smoking car wasn't so sure.
But in a city hungry for heroes, the spotlight first turned to the vendors. Mr. Orton, a purveyor of T-shirts, ran from the limelight early Sunday morning as he spurned reporters’ questions while gathering his merchandise on a table near where the Pathfinder was parked. When asked if he was proud of his actions, Mr. Orton, who said he had been selling on the street for about 20 years, replied: “Of course, man. I’m a veteran. What do you think?”
I tend to agree with the policemen on the scene in Times Square who eschewed the hero moniker and,
he referred to “guys with bomb suits” as “incredible heroes”
That I agree with. If you willingly strap on a heavy suit and walk towards a bomb to protect public safety, in my view you're a hero.
This story reminded me of the airline pilot, Captain Sully Sullenberger, repeatedly described in the media as a "hero." Don't get me wrong: he certainly did a great job landing the plane on the Hudson River safely. I'm very comfortable describing him as a fantastic, capable pilot who executed his duties under great pressure. But was he a hero? The dictionary defines a hero as,
a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities
Again, Sully did a great job landing the plane. But were his actions courageous, brave or noble? Let's not kid ourselves: he was on the plane. He was the captain. It was his job to land the plane, an action he trained for throughout his career, and one he was paid to do. What else could he do? Not land the plane?? Was that really an option? How then were his actions "brave and noble"? They were competent, capable, steady - exactly as they should have been. He did his job. But we don't celebrate dependability today. We only worship heroism. I've been thinking about this issue for a few days now, so I noticed a sticker on the bus this morning on my way to work. Here's the sticker:
Translation: "Honored Traveler: Examine the area around your seat and report any suspicious items to the driver. (at the bottom) Remember: Awareness prevents tragedies.
This is daily life here in Israel. You keep your eyes open, watching for things that seem out of place. You report unusual items - even a backpack in a public space. And when you do, you're not a hero. You're a responsible member of society.
Awareness. Citizenship. Responsibility. These are the qualities evident in someone who reports a suspicious SUV smoking like a barbecue in the middle of Times Square. But I wouldn't call him a hero.
I wonder: why are so many people "hungry for heroes"? Why does every story need to have someone sweep in, ignoring danger and throwing caution to the wind in order to save the day? Does life somehow become less meaningful if it fails to resemble a superhero action flick?
We seem to have lost an ability to find nobility in consistency and perseverance; in the daily grind that keeps life normal and uneventful. By transforming citizenship into heroism, we somehow denigrate the cop that walks the beat who insures that our lives remain stable and normal.
I think the only hero in this case is the moron who failed to properly build the bomb in the first place. His ineptitude probably saved lives.