He’s a…hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” –Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
“It depends on your definition of a…hero.” -Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson
There’s been a lot of chatter in recent days about whether Senator John McCain is a hero. Based on the definition presented by Cambridge American Dictionary, John McCain definitely qualifies. On all counts McCain meets the criteria of bravery (despite torture and solitary confinement he never shared vital information with his captors), achievements (in addition to being a graduate of the US Naval Academy and decorated veteran, he is a respected US Senator and former Presidential candidate), and good qualities (no one can seriously doubt his honesty, patriotism and love of country).
All this parsing of what constitutes being a hero has led me to think about how easily we use that term as a descriptor. After all by definition not only is John McCain a hero; so is a type of sandwich.
When we glibly use the term to describe anyone who puts on a uniform and simply does their job, we run the risk of trivializing and diminishing what constitutes being a hero. There is no doubt in my mind that our military personnel, for example, should be respected. After all, the 1% who serve in our armed forces today are doing what the rest of us don’t want to do. The women and men in uniform more resemble a mercenary force hired to do our dirty work than a military drawn from the breadth and depth of our whole society. Not surprisingly they do not reflect the rich racial or economic diversity of our nation but are drawn largely from the ranks of the poor and ethnic minorities.
The same respect should be provided to our first responders; as has often been cited, when others flee from a crisis they move toward it.
But they simply cannot all be heroes, lest the term become meaningless through its diluting overuse. Often our political leadership, from the President down to local officials, describe our first responders or military as heroes. But we also know that some military have been guilty of egregious acts (think Abu Ghraib or the selfies of gloating American soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq holding up dismembered enemy remains); and this year seemingly has at least a monthly news story about yet another unarmed Black person shot, killed or humiliated by police. The actions of a few miscreants do not define the whole, but neither do the brave actions, good qualities, and achievements of a few.
There may be times when we act heroically; but that does not make us heroes in essence or at heart. Abusers or sexual predators can sometimes behave kindly, but at core they do not exemplify kindness for us but something different.
In the same way in the world of sports I may show respect for someone’s athletic prowess and achievements as they perform in uniform. But can someone truly and fully be a hero worthy of our children’s emulation if their athletic skill is not matched by their personal integrity and character, in uniform or out?
I am simply suggesting that we be more circumspect in our naming of heroes. Words actually matter. In a community where everyone can easily be called a hero, heroes may still exist. But what is truly laudatory, commendable and worthy seems cheapened by our facile definitions.