HEROES - Get 'Em by the Bagful

The brazen manipulation of perception in America is rarely more in evidence than in our cult of manufactured hero worship. We the people are the diners, served endless buffets of all-American heroes by the caterers of the media. Local news stations are particularly guilty of hyping every simple good deed into extraordinary heroism, but it is more often the networks who, inadvertently or otherwise, perform services for third- parties who stand to benefit by the thoughtless and inappropriate canonizations.

Perhaps the problem lies with our seemingly unquenchable thirst to find inspiration, and the media’s equally intense desire to slake that thirst, even if they have to spin a story 180 degrees to do it. Often, this is done in disturbing complicity with the very organizations we depend on our reporters to critique objectively.

Thus, we’re handed Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady, a quite likable young man who holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only American pilot in the Bosnian theater to have his plane shot out from under him, normally not considered a positive tick on one’s service record. But Captain O’Grady, as he was taught and expected to do, followed to the letter the survival training provided by the Air Force and saved his own life, after which the Air Force called him a hero and phoned up Larry King.

I believe you and I would have been equally motivated to stay alive, and while I am glad to credit Captain O’Grady with keeping his wits about him, I fail to see where the heroism entered into it. I’m not sure he does, either, but when he told us in his own words that he was not a hero, just “a scared little bunny rabbit,” we chose to write this off as modesty when he was just telling us the truth.

And thus did the Air Force, with the media’s cooperation, turn around quite an embarrassing little episode in a manner that must have made professional flacks everywhere blush with pride.

In similar fashion, we are offered Kerri Strug’s heroic Olympic vault on a sore leg. I wouldn’t take away a thing from this stout athlete’s feat (no pun intended), but it does trouble me that she is constantly being introduced as the heroic trooper who braved pain to provide the vault that won the gold for the US team.

We know that’s not the case. The gold was already won and the vault was unnecessary, and the real story was how the US coaches should have known better. It doesn’t at all negate Strug’s accomplishment: as far as she was concerned, it was up to her to secure the medal. But somehow reporters, commentators and talk show hosts, feeling a burning need to provide another hero to their audiences, artfully neglect to mention this minor little tidbit, as did Rosie O’Donnel on her show. (Strug seems happy to go along; maybe it’s written right into her Wheaties contract.) Not incidentally, attention is drawn away from some of the less savory aspects of what it takes to put little girls on the world stage.

Does any of this really make a difference?

Yes, because it cheapens the label when a real hero comes along, one who isn’t exploitable by a special interest group or doesn’t luck into a slow news day to inflate an ordinary act into Biblical proportions. What’s the good of being a hero when everybody who hasn’t been playing too long without a helmet can be one?

To bring real honor to the real heroes, we need to raise the bar a little on the criteria. Here are a couple of thoughts:

First, a heroic act ought to be selfless. I’m as fanatic a fan of the Olympics as anyone, but I know that, bottom line, it is basically an orgy of self-aggrandizement, new record-holders throwing their arms up in the air and taking victory laps to the wild cheers of adoring multitudes even as Nike and Reebok begin preparing endorsement contracts. Magnificent athletes? Definitely.

Heroes? Not so fast.

Second, it ought to involve some genuine risk . If a woman runs into a burning building that threatens to collapse at any moment in order to save some kids’ lives, she’s a real hero. If the same woman spots the same kids locked in a car on a hot day and calls the police to get them out, she’s just a reasonable citizen doing a good deed.

If a security guard spots a suspicious knapsack, moves the crowd away and calls in for the bomb squad, he’s just an observant security guard doing exactly what he’s paid to do. If he thinks the bomb is about to go off any second, and he runs to pick it up and heave it over a fence or throws his body over it to protect others, only then should he be interviewed by Katie Couric.

Maybe one of the reasons people with “hero complexes” sometimes stage their own heroic acts is because it’s such a piece of cake to get a worshipful, not-too-probing reporter to strut you across the news set, especially when urged to do so by the same law enforcement officials who didn’t look so good for having failed to prevent the tragedy in the first place.

Third, the act ought to involve something that a reasonable person might not be expected to do under a similar circumstance. As a pilot myself, I have endless admiration for Captain Al Haines, who brought a badly crippled airliner down against all odds and managed to save half his passengers (among them Olympic equestrian medalist Stephen Mack who, along with his wife, is credited with saving two kids on the flight).

But White did what he was expected to do, and, not incidentally, was saving his own life in the process. And while he certainly did it with extraordinary skill, it wasn’t like he volunteered to parachute into the cockpit of a dying plane; he was already there. In short, what he did was precisely what we would expect from anyone in the same situation.

The media, theoretically among our most cherished cultural watchdogs, ought to start drawing more thoughtful distinctions between heroism and good deeds, and stop inventing heroes out of thin air just to pump up the ratings and make everybody feel better. And we as citizens should look skeptically upon these kinds of declarations, and ask ourselves if anyone stands to benefit, including the reporter bringing you the exclusive.

That way, we might have given a bit more thought to things like the Gulf War “We’re-so-proud-of-you” campaign, in which our government paraded thousands and thousands of “heroes” all over America for hurling $50 billion worth of high-tech weaponry against an enemy who, for the most part, didn’t fight back. General Schwarzkopf may have been a great general and a brilliant military strategist but the only things of his that were in real jeopardy if he screwed up were his royalty checks.

Hardly the same as running into a burning building.

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