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American Heroism

American Heroism

By William R Thomas

November 2001 -- A commentary from the Navigator Special: The Assault on Civilization, revised October 15, 2001. Published in the November 2001 Navigator

The terrorist attacks of September 11 showed us good and evil, heroism and villainy. There were people who stared death in the face and, setting fear aside, did what they thought needed doing. Firefighters and policemen strode into burning buildings to save lives. Passengers attacked armed hijackers with their bare hands. And the hijackers steadfastly flew stolen airliners into their targets at the price of certain death. Given this basic similarity, why were some acclaimed as martyrs and heroes while others were deplored as fanatics and villains? Is the only difference whether the moral assessment emanates from New York City or from Kandahar?

Death is the ending we fight against all our lives. So it is appalling to think of countless lives lost and horrifying to see magnificent buildings utterly destroyed. It is heartstopping to imagine the will power and concentration that it takes to accept the risk or certainty of death and yet continue to act. So we are quick to think it heroic to take that risk.

In the West, there has long been an equivocal tradition of heroism. In Classical Greece, heroes were notable as much for their prowess as their moral nature. Hercules and Achilles, reputed to have the blessing the gods, were heroic because of the strength and physical skill they displayed in competition and in warfare, and the honor they won thereby. Consider Odysseus, that wily survivor, who bests the gods and wins his way home. The Christian tradition altered the concept, replacing prowess and honor with spiritual purity. The Christian hero's purity is his devotion to God and his fellow man. His heroism is marked by his indifference to his own life and interests. Jesus on the cross, dying for the sins of mankind, is the archetype, but many martyrs and servants of the Christian cause have followed in those footsteps.

What we think heroic depends crucially on what we think noble. Strength is heroic if excellence of strength is noble. Self-sacrifice is heroic if service to a cause or to others is noble. The radical Islamic tradition that lies behind Middle Eastern praise for the September 11 hijackers combines the adulation of service to God with a theocratic commitment to advance the faith in political terms. In Islam, marked from the first with the conception of the holy war, the warrior in the cause of the holy is a classical hero, and his death is a martyr's death.
 
The concept that heroism is self-sacrifice for a noble ideal is clearly alive in the West today. It is propounded by the religious establishment and neo-traditionalists like William Bennett. But it is present even in the basically secular and hedonistic mainstream culture. Consider, for example, the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day, in which the self-sacrifice of Randy Quaid's boozing crop-duster pilot in a kamikaze style attack transforms him from bum to hero in the eyes of the world and even his own children.
 
Large segments of our culture seem to think self-sacrifice is the measure of moral worth. The press has been full of reports, since the attacks on the Twin Towers, that America has shown its moral greatness. The New York Times, in a story about how attitudes toward New York have changed in the heartland, reports on this phenomenon: "Debi Koss, a nurse, used to think of New York as a faceless, godless cinderblock. But she has revised her views. ''I've seen a lot of selflessness,' Ms. Koss said." The article also cites a factory worker who remarks that the post-disaster spirit of mutual aid contrasts favorably with the normal run of business: "'Before, they appeared to be selfish with their time.'"
 
Objectivism opposes the ethic of self-sacrifice. It holds that each person's life and happiness are and should be the lodestones of value for himself. It is an egoist moral code, down to the root. It is an ethic of rational selfishness and principled self-interest. And in correspondence with its ethical code, Objectivism implies an idea of the hero which we see realized not only in crises like the September 11 attacks, but also in the normal run of business, in the acts of people who are "selfish with their time."
 
The Objectivist view of heroism is a bourgeois, industrial-age advance from the Classical heroic ideal. The classical hero was strong or perhaps cunning. But his essential characteristic was the admirable excellence of a victor in zero-sum conflicts like war or the Olympic Games. Bourgeois heroism is exemplified in a rational, professional, and productive excellence. For example, a scientist who wins a Nobel Prize for achievements in his field is a hero to his peers due to what he has created. In the same way, someone who develops new products or opens new markets is a hero. Objectivism adds the insight that this kind of excellence is of the noblest spiritual character: it is predicated on a love of life and on the use of reason to create value. In its fullest sense, then, this view of heroism, so appropriate to the American way of life, is a greatness of loyalty to values.
 
An American hero achieves the best within himself and the best possible to man. In action, he epitomizes the powers of reason and achievement that are man's glory, demonstrating excellence in skill and virtue. Thus we find heroism in an entrepreneur who struggles to bring to a business plan to fruition, and in the dedication of an immigrant who undertakes an arduous journey to seek a better life in a new country. And in the attacks of September 11, we found American heroism in the form of courage.
 
Courage is the virtue of pursuing one's values consistently in the face of risk. It is not courageous to seek death and destruction: there is no value in death, just as there is no content to a zero. Nor is it courage if a foolhardy person acts in disregard of the risks. Indeed, it is essential to courage that one know the risk one faces, and accept it.
 
From the evidence that it is available it appears that United Flight 93 crashed far from its target because the civilian passengers onboard the plane threw themselves, unarmed, against the hijackers. Because they spoke to their loved ones on their cell phones, we know some of the names of those who acted, such as Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett. It takes a rare commitment to reason and objectivity to face up to the fact that one is in the power of suicidal maniacs, a situation so entirely alien to normal life.
 
A myth has circulated in the press: that the passengers of Flight 93 sacrificed themselves to save the nation's capital. In fact, at the time they attacked the hijackers, there is every reason to think they had a reasonable hope of survival. This myth is driven by the altruistic conception of heroism which permeates the cultural subconscious, steeped as it is in the life-boat stories so prevalent in college courses on moral problems. Let it be said that were this myth true, there would still be much to admire in the integrity and benevolence of a person who would not abandon his values in the world even in the face of his own certain death. To live as a human is to live by reason and to live by principle. So it is admirable and moving to see a person face his own death with the same virtues that he lived his life.
 
But there is no evidence that martyrdom was the goal of Glick, Burnett, and their companions. There is every reason to think it was possible for the passengers, perhaps with the help of a surviving pilot, to find a way to safely land the plane if they could only get control of it. Burnett's wife told the AP her husband "thought he was going to be home. He was going to solve this problem." It is a tragedy that he and his compatriots did not make it home. It is heroic that they acted while they still could, as best they could. It takes a rare love of life to throw oneself into a one-sided battle, against the odds, risking injury and death for a chance to make it through. That is the hope of the lover of life: that even the direst problems can be solved. It is a characteristically American hope, and striving to bring it about under the direst and most unforeseen of circumstances takes greatness in many dimensions. It takes American heroism.
 
The courage of the firefighters and emergency workers in New York and elsewhere is of a special order because of the risks they routinely face. But firefighters are professionals committed to preventing fires and providing rescue services to those in danger. As professionals, they train to cope with the danger. In the Objectivist view, a person who trained for this profession is a hero for pursuing his profession effectively, prudently, and courageously. The firefighters and policemen who raced into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center after the explosions did not go there seeking death: they sought to save lives. They were all trained to cope with dangers such as fire and smoke. No one expected the sudden collapse of the towers when it came. The fallen firefighters' heroism lies in their steadfastness to their professional values. But it was heroism equaled by the surviving firefighters and rescue workers who worked with the same steadfastness in the face of the same risks.
 
By an Objective standard, by the standard of loving life, it is not facing death that makes a hero. Even those who hate the good can face death, and anyone who loves destruction can find it. Heroism is a positive achievement, an excellence of skill in living. There were heroes aplenty on September 11, many of them still with us, and there is more heroism every day as the productive genius of our society gets back to work.

This article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.  

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William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society. Thomas is currently a lecturer in the Department of Economics of the University at Albany.