American Heroism

American Heroism
November 2001 -- A commentary from the Navigator Special: The Assault on Civilization, revised October 15, 2001. Published in the November 2001 Navigator. 
The terrorist attacks of September 11 showed us good and evil, heroism and villainy. There were people who stared death in the face and, setting fear aside, did what they thought needed doing. Firefighters and policemen strode into burning buildings to save lives. Passengers attacked armed hijackers with their bare hands. And the hijackers steadfastly flew stolen airliners into their targets at the price of certain death. Given this basic similarity, why were some acclaimed as martyrs and heroes while others were deplored as fanatics and villains? Is the only difference whether the moral assessment emanates from New York City or from Kandahar?
Death is the ending we fight against all our lives. So it is appalling to think of countless lives lost and horrifying to see magnificent buildings utterly destroyed. It is heartstopping to imagine the will power and concentration that it takes to accept the risk or certainty of death and yet continue to act. So we are quick to think it heroic to take that risk.
In the West, there has long been an equivocal tradition of heroism. In Classical Greece, heroes were notable as much for their prowess as their moral nature. Hercules and Achilles, reputed to have the blessing the gods, were heroic because of the strength and physical skill they displayed in competition and in warfare, and the honor they won thereby. Consider Odysseus, that wily survivor, who bests the gods and wins his way home. The Christian tradition altered the concept, replacing prowess and honor with spiritual purity. The Christian hero's purity is his devotion to God and his fellow man. His heroism is marked by his indifference to his own life and interests. Jesus on the cross, dying for the sins of mankind, is the archetype, but many martyrs and servants of the Christian cause...