What makes a hero?
This question has been on my mind in recent weeks, especially while the media were covering the killings of, and memorials to, the two New York City policeman who were gunned down while sitting in their patrol car.
In the aftermath of the shooting, you rarely saw a story in which the two officers were not referred to as “heroes.” But were they?
If there’s one thing I know about heroes, it’s that I’m not one of them. There is absolutely no definition of the word “hero” under which I would qualify, unless there is an absurdist dictionary somewhere with this listing:
hero (heer-oh) noun:
1. a person who bravely resists an impulse to burst into life-saving action and instead courageously hides under furniture to allow easier access for professionals.
2. a large sandwich consumed by the person described above after his ordeal.
But enough about me and my diet.
Here is the New York Times description of the killing of those NYC officers:
“The officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were in the car near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the shadow of a tall housing project when the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, walked up to the passenger-side window and assumed a firing stance, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said. Mr. Brinsley shot several rounds into the heads and upper bodies of the officers, who never drew their weapons…”
Let’s ignore for the moment The Times super-annoying habit of using “Mr.” or “Ms.” after the initial reference, no matter who they’re talking about. (Seriously? “Mr. Brinsley, the cop killer?” Perhaps we can get Mr. Cent to write a rap song about it.)
The point is, does it matter that Officers Liu and Ramos were not engaged in an heroic action at the time of their deaths? Yes, they were killed in the line of duty–sort of–in that they were, in fact, on duty. But it’s not as if they were rushing into a building to free a hostage or anything.
In other words, there was no act of bravery involved. No heroic qualities were on display. They did not consciously risk injury or death on behalf of others. They were sitting in a car.
Does that matter?
If we call them heroes, are we saying that simply joining a police force is an heroic act? You could argue that becoming a cop carries inherent risk, and so is, indeed, an act of heroism.
But what if I told you that police work doesn’t even make the Top 10 list of dangerous jobs? What if I told you that, statistically, being an airline pilot is much more dangerous than being a cop? Would you then salute Captain Miller in the cockpit for his heroism while he tells you the reason for your delay? (And would it make you want to ride in a patrol car rather than get on your next flight?)
A career in garbage collection is also way more dangerous than police work. But if your local refuse professional was shot while picking up your recycling, would the media call him a hero?
What about a member of the armed services? Is the infantryman in Iraq more heroic than the instructor at West Point or the Drill Sergeant at Fort Dix? After all, they’re all just doing the jobs assigned to them. We tend to refer to any soldier who dies (and even those who don’t) as heroes, but what if you are killed by a freak kitchen fire in a mess hall?
Should there be a distinction?
I don’t want to take anything away from Officers Liu and Ramos, or any other police officer, firefighter, service man or woman, or logger (the most dangerous profession). I thank you all for your service and, in the last case, wood. But if we so freely use the word “hero,” doesn’t that detract from people who actually are?
I don’t know the answer; I’m just asking the question. What do you think?
See you soon.