What is a hero?

Posted: June 24, 2012

I am a great fan of Chris Hayes. He is one of the smartest people to currently grace our TV screens. And while I understand the current zeal for apologies in this country, I wish he had not made his.

He expressed concern at the willy-nilly way the word hero is thrown around in our culture. Which ignited a bit of a fire-storm and led to him apologizing. He didn’t need to.

He is absolutely right. It was always a word that was overused – probably due to the American invention and love for Superheroes.

But post 9/11 it got completely out of control.

Let’s clarify something. You are not a hero because of who you are. You are a hero because of what you do. Some Marines, for example, have shown true courage in the face of danger, saved colleagues on the battlefield and are true heroes. Other Marines are rapists*. Even a man who has perhaps been a member of the first group but later joined the second is no hero.

You are not a hero simply because you are a member of the military, the police or our firefighting crews. But you have put yourself in a position where you may indeed have the opportunity to perform heroic acts. When you perform those acts – like the men who ran into the towers to try to save lives but gave up their own on 9/11 – you will, correctly, be called a hero. But not before.

This was Chris Hayes’ point, I think, and he should not have been called on to apologize.

if we award the name hero to anyone in a potentially dangerous job, how do we recognize the true heroes when they rise to the occasion? We are all potential heroes. Few actually are.

*The new documentary The Invisible War documents just a few of the 19,000 rapes that take place annually in the American military. It has been described as an epidemic.