Rediscovering Heroes

    The words hero and heroism fell into disfavor in the 1960s. Professors and students took pleasure in debunking the greats. Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress. Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk. John Kennedy was an incorrigible womanizer. Columbus exploited native Americans. Add to this deconstructionism, a major influence on college campuses. As Peter Gibbon writes in his recent book A Call to Heroism, "Deconstructionists find the word hero meaningless. In their view, no one is selfless or noble. Behind every altruistic act is self-interest." As one observer noted, "It may be a reflection of our times that we cannot see unvarnished heroism without noticing the baseness that often lies just beneath the surface." But just a year ago on a beautiful September morning, four teams of terrorists commandeered passenger planes turning them into weapons. "Ordinary" men and women sprang into action, and heroes emerged. To our credit, once we got over our surprise, we recognized them. Faces of Ground Zero, one of several coffee-table books about September 11, has a picture of Louie Cacchioli on the cover. Cacchioli was one of the firefighters who ran into the World Trade Center as it burned. "We were the first ones in the second tower after the plane struck," he wrote. "I was taking firefighters up the elevator to the twenty-fourth floor to get in position to evacuate workers. On the last trip up, a bomb went off. We think there were bombs set in the building." While Cacchioli was wrong about the bombs, he did rush inside and upstairs believing that there were bombs -- just a guy doing his job. Peter Gibbon defines heroes using three criteria. Heroes accomplish something extraordinary; they show moral valor, especially in adversity; and they are "great souls" who lift us up through their high-minded, noble examples. These criteria place heroes in marked contrast with the ersatz "heroes" of the past few decades, the celebrities. Raising money for the victims of September 11, actor and celebrity Tom Hanks reflected this: "Those of us here tonight are not heroes, or healers, or protectors of this great nation. We are merely artists . . . " I couldn't agree more. Catastrophic crimes like the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may not happen every day, thankfully. But every day police and fire departments answer calls that put officers and firefighters into harm's way. What changed is the condescension accorded to what are now being called "everyday heroes." Suddenly the middle-class, mostly white protectors of public safety are the kind of people Hillary Clinton wants to see on her Wheaties box -- a place of honor reserved for athletes. Heroes making sacrifices have not changed. We have changed -- we now recognize them. Every hero, to be sure, is human and deeply marred by sin. Yet a life without heroes is an impoverished life, as the past three decades have taught us. Celebrities may hold our interest, but they have no ability to inspire us to live great lives. By contrast, heroes invite us to grow. Peter Gibbon writes, "They enlarge our imagination, teach us to think big, and expand our sense of the possible." As we think again about the vicious attacks and the great deeds on a warm September day, we should develop renewed respect and gratitude for real heroism and for the real heroes in our midst. For further reading and information: BreakPoint's "9/11 Worldview Resource Kit" answers questions many Americans are asking. It includes Timothy George's book Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?, Chuck Colson's When Night Fell on a Different World: How Now Shall We Live?, and a "BreakPoint Weekend Special" CD including two interviews with Chuck Colson recorded after September 11 and a year later. The September issue of BreakPoint WorldView magazine includes a cover story by "BreakPoint" radio managing editor Jim Tonkowich on the renewed respect for heroes, as well as an editorial by Charles Colson looking ahead after the anniversary of September 11. (You can receive it for one year -- 10 issues -- for a donation of $25 or more to "BreakPoint.") Marilyn Gardner, "Wanted: Someone to look up to," Christian Science Monitor, 18 July 2002 (a review of Peter Gibbon's A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness). Read more about the tribute to "Faces of Ground Zero."


Chuck Colson


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