What Is A Hero?

07/06/2016 09:59 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2016
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

“You don’t need to be so tense,” one of the gunmen told the local workers at the restaurant they had just stormed. “We will not kill Bengalis. We will only kill foreigners.”

The calm declaration of who was to be executed in the restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh Friday night was another reminder of the capacity of human beings to allow ideology to entomb their decency under the banner of a cause. The selection was reminiscent of another selection, 70 years ago, where people were also segregated into the worthy and unworthy, the us and the other.

But shining through the tragedy of that too familiar atrocity was the kind of heroism that keeps us believing that the brutality of those who hold life in such disregard might not infect us. Our ultimate fear is not that they will “win” and hold us hostage to their ideology – as terrifying a thought as that is – but that their ideology itself will win, as it did among large numbers of Germans under the Nazis, and we too will descend into barbarity.

In the restaurant was a Bangladeshi man, Faraz Hossain, a student at Emory University. According to freed hostages, Mr. Hossain was accompanied by two women in Western clothing, one of whom was another Emory student, Abinta Kabir. Mr. Hossain, as a Bengali, was permitted to leave; his companions, identified as foreigners, were not. Mr. Hossain refused to leave them behind, and his body was found among the dead when the police finally stormed the restaurant Saturday morning.

How are we to understand such heroism? There is no doubt Mr. Hossain knew the consequences of his actions. The gunmen had already killed and macheted the bodies of other victims. He had the ability to save himself, and who would blame him if he did? He was young, he was frightened, and he was being offered an escape.

Yet the power of his bravery, the integrity of his loyalty to friends, and the example of his standing up to brutality and tyranny should emanate from this tragedy like a saving grace. We cannot explain it, we can only be inspired by it, and remember it.

The incident raises another caution as well. The gunmen saw their potential victims only as types, in categories, and not as individuals. They had already determined which traits merited execution. Treating human beings as categories is the weapon of the tyrant, whatever form that tyranny takes. It is difficult for individuals to rise above that kind of selection and refuse to accept that bigotry, to put one’s life on the line, especially while staring down the barrel of a rifle.

Faraz Hossain did it. We must resist and defeat the rising global forces of savagery that inspired this and too many other similar atrocities. At the same time, we must resist succumbing to their tactic of categorizing people by their traits instead of their actions. It is not always easy. But if we do not, the deaths, and heroism, of people like Faraz Hossain and Abinta Kabir will mean little.

CONVERSATIONS