When New York City firefighters rushed into the burning Twin Towers 14 years ago, a day of horror and uncertainty also gave us a glimpse of our country’s greatest asset: the life-saving hero.
From the beginning of recorded history, heroism has most often been associated with prowess on the field of battle. Heroes excelled by slaying their enemies and conquering their neighbors.
Our modern-day warriors have no less fighting spirit than their counterparts from centuries past. But their fight today is not to conquer the world in the manner ofAlexander the Great. Whatever their sense of personal ambition, the reason they fight is to defend their country from harm. They fight for us, not for territory or glory.
That’s the connection between our warriors and the 9/11 firefighters. Rushing into a burning building to try to save the lives of strangers trapped inside is no way to improve your odds of making it through the day — any more than is setting out on a special operations mission to find Osama bin Laden. Yet our society continues to produce such uncommon individuals.
For firefighters, Sept. 11, 2001, was the extreme case of what they might have to do on any given day. They are routinely willing to take on an extra measure of risk, and sometimes they end up sacrificing their lives — once again, for us.
When Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame described what drew him back to the fight in Iraq time and again, he explained that his purpose was to save the lives of his comrades in arms and their Iraqi allies — that saving lives gave his life a sense of purpose.
Firefighters and warriors are professionals. When you ask them about the heroic actions they have performed, they almost always say the same thing: They were just doing their jobs, what they were trained to do.
That’s a kind of noble humility — an unwillingness to assert that they have any claim to superiority over others. It is very much consistent with the democratic spirit of the modern world. But “just doing my job” really doesn’t explain why they chose the jobs they did.
No one becomes a special operations warrior or a firefighter in ignorance of the near certainty of coming into harm’s way. These individuals take that risk on voluntarily. Within them is a spirit that makes them willing to accept routine danger in a way most people do not. It’s not to advance their own ambition, however, in the manner of the slaying heroes of yore. Rather, it’s the spirit of service to country or community.
This life-risking, life-saving spirit also lies in wait in some exceptional individuals who have chosen more ordinary paths for their lives. On a hijacked airplane flying over Pennsylvania 14 years ago, Mark Bingham was in public relations. Tom Burnett ran a medical device company. Jeremy Glick was a marketing executive. Todd Beamer was a software salesman.
When passengers on cellphones on United Flight 93 learned that the evident purpose of the hijackers was to crash the jetliner into a landmark in the nation’s capital, those four formed a plan to try to take the plane back.
“Let’s roll,” Beamer said, and a band of passengers stormed the cockpit. They all died in the crash, but they saved the lives of untold numbers of people on the ground. They gave up the desperate hope of inaction in favor of a riskier course. They died as heroes.
We will never rid ourselves once and for all of the menace of those who seek to impose their will on us by the sword, in the manner of conquerors from time immemorial. But against these slaying heroes, we have our saving heroes.
They risk and sometimes give up their lives not in pursuit of fanatical ambition to dictate the terms of other people’s lives, or to conquer the world, but to save us from such fanaticism. We need their heroism today as much as ever.