Of all the images the world saw of last week's disaster, among the most indelible were those of New York City firefighters. Dressed in heavy protective uniforms, their faces covered with ghostly ash, they searched for survivors in the rubble that had been the World Trade Center. As each long day and night blended into the next increasingly hopeless day, their persistence was a sad reminder of the colleagues who had gone before them -- firefighters who had headed up stairwells and through smoke-filled hallways, telling people to get out and move as far from the buildings as possible, only to be trapped themselves when the skyscrapers fell.
Other heroes participated in rescue efforts -- police and Port Authority employees, ironworkers, emergency services workers and hospital personnel. Tales spread of ordinary citizens who aided co-workers as well as strangers, often at risk to themselves. And then there were the civilians on Flight 93 who, according to accounts pieced together from cell phone conversations, rushed the hijackers and crashed in Pennsylvania in order to avoid flying into a Washington landmark.
But among the many heroes, the firefighters stood tallest. Millions witnessed the constant element of their job that seems almost antithetical to human nature: When everyone else flees from danger, they run toward it, in order to help others.
A heightened awareness of heroism is at the top of the list of things that have changed since Sept. 11, especially after years of cynicism and irony. Having seen such stirring examples, we wonder why some people choose careers that demand it regularly. What allows others to become more than even they might have imagined? Are heroes born or made? There have long been heroes for particular constituencies -- sports, entertainment, military and politics -- but the recent terrorist attacks brought the quality of selflessness to the forefront.
"Some people simply put the welfare of others before their own," says David H. Barlow, a Boston University clinical psychologist. "That makes them heroes."
Even in the darkest hours, Americans are a fundamentally optimistic people. Our newest heroes give a battered nation hope: If good people exist, then evil's in for a fight. Now that we're immersed in a conflict that clearly has villains, heroes are required to balance the scales. They are a tonic, providing a standard of conduct others aspire to. Heroes keep America moving forward.
America has long acknowledged its military heroes. The Purple Heart was established in 1782 and the Congressional Medal of Honor was first awarded to Civil War soldiers. When John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, for the first time civilians could be honored for public service. On May 30, President Bush signed a law establishing a Presidential Medal of Valor for firefighters and law enforcement officers who show extraordinary valor in their duties. No one has yet received it.
This tragedy summoned heroes we'd seen before, but not so clearly in a while. They aren't the larger-than-life superheroes of comic books or the stoic cavalrymen of movie westerns. The men and women who inspired admiration in the days following the attack exhibited qualities most Americans would like to claim themselves.
"The great American belief is that the common man, in a moment of truth, can rise to the occasion and become a public servant of the first order," says Michael Marsden, a professor of popular culture at Eastern Kentucky University. "The firefighters represent the best of the American Everyman. They're our neighbors."
In a crisis, society also benefits from good deeds that might not achieve heroic status. "The great story coming out of New York is that regular New Yorkers are great people," Marsden said. "They have that basic goodness, humanity and strong work ethic that we admire."
As enduring as such traditional values have been, in the past two decades cynicism and irony have reigned. Pop culture has kept busy ridiculing and diminishing anyone who's admired.
"Last week's events shocked us into re-examining our perspective," says Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago. The cynicism that had become accepted "was born of complacency, security and luxury, among a generation that knew it would do better than the one that came before."
"It was easy to feel cynical about others who do good. Now there's more threat and more jeopardy. We're focusing on heroes in a way that's very useful because it helps the rest of the population respond. Our new lifestyle will require sacrifice, and heroes have shown us sacrifice."
Martyrdom has always represented the ultimate sacrifice and is contained in many religious traditions. The painful paradox of the attacks is that the terrorists believed they were acting as religious martyrs, heroes to their cause. For many Americans, the Judeo-Christian canon has informed our concept of heroism.
Father Thomas Rausch, chairman of the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says, "Whenever I think of heroism, I call to mind the words of Jesus, 'Greater love than this has no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.' The whole example of Jesus is an example of self-sacrificing love."
For the last 20 years, an average of 100 firefighters have died annually in the line of duty throughout the United States. The losses suffered in New York were staggering: More than 300 firefighters, nearly 30 times the number ever lost by the department in a single event, have been listed as missing or dead.
In the face of danger, camaraderie is a powerful motivator. Firefighters understand one another. They feel the responsibility of not letting down co-workers who become surrogate family.
In the absence of the group bonding that firefighters experience, can people be trained to be courageous? "To some extent, courage is taught, to some extent it's a personality trait that blossoms in the right conditions," says Boston University's Barlow.
Many firefighters are raised in close-knit families in which service to the community is valued. "We can take a young man or woman who hasn't come from a strong family and peer pressure to do the right thing will have an effect. Heroism is contagious," says Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Steve Ruda.
The definition of heroism that has emerged in this crisis demands that the needs of the community become paramount. And a hero who blows his own horn would be violating an unwritten code of modesty.
"We want self-effacing heroes," Marsden says. "True heroes are surprised that others see them as heroic. They see themselves as just doing what they're supposed to be doing."
On the afternoon of Sept. 11, a TV camera crew stopped one obviously weary firefighter as he emerged from an office building that had just been evacuated.
"You going back in?" they asked.
"It's my job," he replied.
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