When a national tragedy happens -- especially one with political relevance -- the country explodes in a paroxysm of commentary about the incident, in what psychologists would probably label a desperate attempt to attach some sort of meaning. Looking around the media universe today, I see that this is now happening from all sides. Snap judgments are made, spin is spun, and everyone tries to fit what happened into their own view of the world, whatever that happens to be. But since everyone else is covering the bases on this front, I thought I'd focus on heroism.
President Obama, in his remarks today on the shooting, said the following:
I think it's important for us to also focus, though, on the extraordinary courage that was shown during the course of these events: a 20-year-old college student who ran into the line of fire to rescue his boss; a wounded woman who helped secure the ammunition that might have caused even more damage; the citizens who wrestled down the gunman. Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence.
I have to agree with the president on this one. Without attempting to lower some Pollyannaish veil or rosy-colored lens on a tragedy in which a score of people were killed and maimed, there are positive aspects to the story which bear pointing out.
Two heroes have already been identified by the media. The first was a man who died shielding his wife from bullets. Dorwan Stoddard, a minister who was 76 years old, pulled his wife down when the shooting started and covered her body with his. She was shot in the legs. He was shot in the head, and died at the scene in his wife's arms.
The second hero is still alive. From a Huffington Post article today:
When a gunman attacked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and others on Saturday, 20-year-old intern Daniel Hernandez ran toward the shots to try to save those who were injured. He stopped to check pulses on several victims before finding Giffords, who had been shot in the head. Hernandez applied pressure to the wound, holding his boss of five days until his clothes were soaked with her blood. Hernandez, trained as a nursing assistant, lifted her head so that she wouldn't choke on her own blood. When an ambulance came, he climbed inside with her and held her hand.
That bears repeating -- Daniel Hernandez had been Representative Giffords' intern for five days. He was not some longtime staffer or trusted aide -- he was still in his first week on the job.
The next paragraph of the news article was the most interesting to me, though:
"I think it's a little strange to be calling me a hero, because the things that I did was a one-off," Hernandez said on CBS's "The Early Show" on Monday. "However, the real heroes are people like Congresswoman Giffords, who have dedicated their lives to public service and helping others."
Two months ago, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to the first living recipient since the Vietnam era. At the time, I wrote an article titled "Heroes Never Call Themselves Heroes." Back then, this is what I had to say:
But I've noticed something profoundly basic over the years -- heroes never call themselves heroes. Or, at least, not the ones I've ever seen or heard of. I really don't know why this is, maybe it is subjective on my part. Maybe I'm only noticing the ones who reject the label. But Army Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, today's Medal of Honor recipient, seems to conform to this perception -- he really gets almost insulted that he's getting an award when other people around him aren't. Giunta voices this feeling in a stunning video which was shot by an embedded reporter.
The basic question of who, exactly, is a "hero" has always kind of interested me in a philosophical way. At times, the word gets bandied about in situations I would say just don't qualify (a "sports hero," for instance). But when we are at war, this sort of broadening of the scope of the term seems to shrink back considerably, so as not to cheapen the word when we have soldiers in the field.
Heroism isn't limited just to the military world, of course. Certain professions lend themselves to heroism (and even heroics) all the time -- firefighters, police, the Coast Guard and other rescue personnel, ambulance crews, and doctors all have their share of heroes in their ranks. But sometimes being a hero just means being in the right place at the right time, and doing what seems obvious. At least, that's what most heroes have to say about it after the fact. "I was walking down the street and saw a burning building, so of course I ran into it and saved that little girl -- who wouldn't?" What this ignores, however, is the crowd of people who were standing around and had equal opportunity to save her, but didn't. Most ordinary people freeze in panic situations. Heroes, for the most part, do not -- they act. They act decisively and swiftly, while everyone else is standing around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
So it really didn't come as any surprise that Hernandez said what he did, at least not to me. Perhaps there's a quality of selflessness in all heroes, or perhaps people thrust into the spotlight in this fashion are just media-savvy enough to not boast about their heroism. I prefer to think it's the former, as the latter is just a bit too cynical for my taste.
Some are trying to politicize the fact that Hernandez is gay and/or Latino. I think this sort of thing is stretching the whole "teachable moment" concept too far, personally. OK, sure a gay man who is Latino is capable of being a hero. But you know what? I could care less. No matter what his ethnicity or what his personal attributes are, I would still be calling him a hero today. If he was a white Tea Partier who had shown up at the meet-and-greet with the Congresswoman to berate her about healthcare -- and he did the same thing Hernandez did after the shooting started; he would be every iota a hero, just as Hernandez unquestionably is. Politics is immaterial at such times, and it should be immaterial afterwards as well.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not putting down gays or Latinos in any way by saying this. I celebrate gay heroism and Latino heroism whenever I see it, and would strongly condemn anyone who even suggested being a certain ethnicity or having a certain sexual orientation is any sort of bar to being a hero. But, also, I don't believe any of that is truly relevant.
What is relevant is that one phrase from the news story: "... Daniel Hernandez ran toward the shots...." When the crisis hit, he acted selflessly. That is the very definition of heroism. He even had some emergency medical training, so he was able to help the victims. But you can train anyone in these techniques, and it does not guarantee that when the time comes they will run toward the bullets.
Hernandez was not the only hero in Tucson. He is just currently the hero the media has focused on for the time being. There were, as President Obama pointed out, others who acted equally heroically that day. Some of their stories may never be told -- things happen so fast in crises that often times heroism goes unnoticed.
Hernandez has already gotten a standing ovation from a crowd led by the governor of his state. He will also quite likely be present for accolades during the upcoming State of the Union speech (which has a tradition of honoring heroes stretching back to Ronald Reagan). He's already been on national television.
That's quite a leap for a 20-year-old to make, from his first day as a congressional intern to national hero inside of a week. But I have to say, it is well-deserved. Because being a hero is being able to act (and not freeze) in a crisis. This brutal shooting spree has generated many tragic stories, and also much overheated political rhetoric (which is ironic, since the overheated rhetoric is mostly about what a bad thing overheated rhetoric is). The families involved have either a period of mourning or a period of struggling for recovery in front of them. These stories will doubtlessly be told in the days and weeks to come.
But President Obama is right, too. It is important to focus on the extraordinary courage shown on the day of the shooting rampage. Because while you can train for what to do in an emergency, you cannot train someone to be heroic. When tested, heroes act to do the right thing, with little concern for their own safety while doing so. It's only later that they humbly deny being a hero, insisting that anyone would have done the same. But it's just not true -- which is why the entire concept of a hero came into being in the first place. Exceptional courage under fire or in the face of danger deserves our respect and our praise precisely because not everyone reacts in this fashion. Only heroes do.
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