Friday, December 09, 2005


On the bus ride home from the office Christmas party yesterday, the bus was dark and quiet except for a couple of people sitting on opposite sides of the bus from each other near the front having a discussion. During part of the trip, they were asserting the claim that a police officer, or firefighter, or anybody in one of these positions, does not deserve the name "hero" for such things as rescuing a child from a burning building or a wounded occupant from a burning car.

I do not know how common this view is, and perhaps it is not common at all. However, I have heard it enough times to think that it might be worth a commet. I have heard it said of those who joined the military who now find themselves in danger of being blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Iraq -- that we do not owe them our gratitude because they volunteered for this and are doing only what they had already agreed to do.

This is utter nonsense.

Why does the person who volunteered to become a police officer, fire fighter, or soldier deserve less praise for their heroics than an average citizen who also puts his life on the line for his neighbor? The private citizen who rushes into his neighbor's burning house to save the child has also volunteered to take the risk. Unless somebody pointed a gun at him and said, "Save that child or die," his actions are voluntary. If he should get burned or otherwise injured, or if he should die, should our attitude be, "He voluntarily accepted the risk when he decided to enter the building; therefore, we owe him no gratitude for his actions and no sympathy for his injuries?"

Claims like this simply make no sense. If not for the fact that I had heard it more than once, and often attributed to Iraq soldiers, I would not consider it worth refuting.

Including Nurses and Doctors

By the way, there is another group that needs to be included in this collection; doctors and nurses. They stand on a front line against disease. If a new pandemic should break out, while we hide in our houses and hope that the disease does not infect us, they will be out caring for the sick.

Some will refuse. The medical profession will experience its share of deserters once the risks become real enough, just as the military does. Those who would desert in the face of danger obviously deserve no praise. But there will be those who stay and seek to do their job to the best of their ability. They would be fully deserving of the name "Hero."

Deserving Praise

The members of these professions deserve the name "hero" just for signing up. Some may never get an opportunity to pull a child from a burning building or do anything similar. Yet, they were willing to name themselves as the person to call if there should be a child that needed rescuing; or a violent person or animal that needs to be captured; or a sick individual who needs treatment even though he may pass his illness on to others; or a tyrant seeking to establish a brutal dictatorship to be fought.

The rest of us hope that we will never need to use their services. Yet, the fact that they have put themselves at the ready to take care of these dangers is enough to allow us to sleep more soundly. The fact that they are ready to take these risks is enough to earn from us our praise and our gratitude.

If somebody does not think that these people deserve this, then let these public servants stay home for just one weekend. Let them stand down and refuse to take any risks. Let us see how little difference it makes in our lives that they do not agree to take these risks. This will tell us if they deserve our praise and our gratitude.

Desertion and Other Exceptions

This is not to say that every person in uniform deserves our praise and gratitude. If a person volunteers to take these risks, we sleep soundly only with the knowledge that they will actually take the risk when the situation arises.

We sleep more soundly at night knowing that the fire fighter is out there only because we assume that he will take the risks required when the time comes. If he is not willing to do so, then he should not be telling us that he will do so. Sixty officers in New Orleans were fired for desertion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. These were officers who volunteered to take a risk -- to stand between those who could not evacuate and harm, but who refused to do so.

Related this, I have heard some people who enlisted in the military or the reserve offer complaints like, "I only did this so that I could get money for college. I did not expect to go to war." I have heard this in the context of protesting the War in Iraq -- as a reason to bring the troops home. There may be other reasons for bringing the troops home that have merit, but this has none. The people who took the money did agree to stand ready to participate in armed conflict. If they had not agreed to stand ready, then they would not have gotten the money. They made a promise; they have obligations to hold up their end of the bargain.

There are also allegations that other officers in New Orleans became the types of people they agreed to protect us from. They took up looting as a profession, taking property for their own use when they agreed to work to prevent people from taking that property for their own use. For these people, condemnation and punishment are more appropriate than praise and gratitude.

San Francisco is now dealing with a scandal within its police force where a number of officers produced a video that denigrated blacks, homosexuals, and others that they had agreed to serve and protect. It is only reasonable to assume that those who denigrate others will be less interested in protecting those others. There is a very real risk that if the officer views a peaceful citizen as something that is sub-human and worthy of ridicule, he or she will be less than willing to view threats against that person as something worthy of his concern. This causes members of the target group to worry that they are not getting the protection that they are paying for.


These items illustrate that not all people who take up these occupations are heroes. Yet, this is a far cry from saying that none of them are. For the most part, and until we discover evidence to the contrary, we can agree that these people voluntarily offered to risk their own well-being to protect us from danger.

Many can be brave until the instant one is actually called. As long as the risk to life and limb is some abstract future thought, it is easy to imagine what one would do. Then the time comes, and the person sees the possibility of death. Some cut and run. Some were in it, "only to get the money to go to college." They were not truly interested in defending others, but interested instead in getting the benefits offered to those who might feign an interest in defending others.

If somebody is actually challenged, and meets that challenge, then we know that he or she is one who has actually accepted the commitment to take the risk, to get the special training to help defend others. We now know that our praise is not misplaced. These people have proved themselves to be heroes. They deserve the praise and condemnation worthy of somebody who fits that description.


Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

What is the ontological basis for heroism? Isn't it an arbitrary term? Is there objective heroism? Couldn't I define "heroism" as the act of torturing little old ladies?

Anonymous said...

Don Jr. --

My point is that we can determine if a behavior is "good" or "bad" by looking at the effects it has.

So, yes, I really do think in significant ways "heroism" and morally "right" behavior are in the same bag. Both have effects on others that we can observe. To the extent that they cause harm they are bad, and to the extent that they avoid harms, they are good.

I guess I'm not sure why you're so quick to interpret what I'm saying as acrimonious or obstinate.