One of the good things that came out of the tragic events of 9/11 is that heroism has reacquired some of its original luster. I’m not certain when it lost it, not at all certain when bravery above and beyond the call of duty gave way to meaning nothing more or less than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Looking back, I have an idea it happened during the Jimmy Carter administration when hostages were taken in Tehran. People who had been abducted by the minions of Ayatolah Khomeni, and held captive by Iranian thugs, were being widely hailed as heroes by the American media.
I’m not suggesting that a hostage can’t also be a hero. Apparently Sen. John McCain behaved like one when he was a POW, volunteering to be beaten by the Vietnamese in order to spare the men in his charge. But I’m afraid that your run-of-the-mill hostage is no more a hero than were any of the unfortunate passengers in the planes that were crashed into the World Trade Center.
It is appropriate to grieve for innocent victims, but we should stop short of lionizing them. Otherwise, how do we distinguish between those who simply die and those who perish trying to save others? For instance, the U.S. Air Force pilot who was shot down behind enemy lines, surviving on bugs and swamp water in Kosovo, was not a hero; the pilots who risked their own necks flying in to save his, were.
In our society, we even call football players and Olympic skaters heroes, further confusing the issue. The most you can say for some guy who’s looking to win the Super Bowl or a gold medal is that he’s a darn good athlete, and leave it at that.
In the main, the 3,000 people who were massacred in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, were no more heroic than you or I. On the other hand, the cops and the firemen, those who ran into the blazing infernos in order to rescue perfect strangers, were the ones who exhibited the requisite bravery and self-sacrifice to deserve the honor.
The point to all this is that you do not turn anyone into a hero simply by calling him one. All you really accomplish is to so totally cheapen the word as to make it meaningless when the real thing comes along.