September 15, 2002
WE DON'T NEED TO BE HEROES
So give the dead the dignity
They say "remember me --
I was someone.
I was someone.
I was someone."
"Beautiful Country," by Something Happens
In this week of honoring the people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks, we kept hearing that they were, one and all, heroes.
I don't care for that use of the word, since heroism is a word that implies choice -- you knew the risks and acted anyway. There are even different levels of heroism. There's the routine, normalized heroism of firefighters, police, soldiers, bomb squads, where risk is built into the job, and they and their families understand that when they walk out the door each morning, they might not ever come back. And there are the unintentional heroes, who in a sudden moment of choice haul someone out of a burning vehicle, leap into rising flood waters to save a drowning child, take a gun away from a psychotic killer, or hit a vicious animal to force it to release the victim it's mauling.
Many of the people who died on September 11 WERE heroes, and should be honored as such -- the firefighters, the flight attendants who calmly notified their airlines of the hijackings, the passengers who stormed the cockpit, the people who helped others escape from the towers and the burning Pentagon.
The rest were ordinary people, trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why do we insist that they were heroes? Is it because we can't bear to call them victims?
But to call them heroes does not just demean the word, or the selfless actions of genuine heroes. It demeans the value of what they were: ordinary people going about their daily lives. There is beauty in ordinary lives, and that is what we should be mourning the loss of.
Read about their lives in Newsday's American Lives: the Stories of the Men and Women Lost on September 11 and you'll see what I mean. We should mourn the loss of Andrew Friedman because his friends "used to tease him, saying we only wished he had a mean streak," because he helped and loved his wife through the pain of ovarian cancer and chemotherapy, because he coached his sons at sports, because 2,000 people came to the funeral of this "big teddy bear" of a man.
We should mourn the loss of Avnish Patel because of the joy in life you can still see on his web site, http://www.avnish.com/, where this amateur photographer posted a photo of himself hiking in New Zealand, and showed off pictures of Dubai, Tahiti, and the World Trade Center where he worked. We should mourn a man who never forgot to call his parents in London every Wednesday, a man who had "a million dollar smile," was always helping people, and believed "That other people disappoint you must be accepted, but that you disappoint yourself can never be forgiven."
Brooke Jackman didn't have to be a hero. It was enough that she didn't value her beauty because she thought helping others was what mattered. She volunteered in soup kitchens and befriended people the rest of the world ignored. We should mourn her because of her independent spirit, her willingness to consider everything others said while nonetheless insisting on coming to her own conclusions. Value her because she loved to walk, miles at a time, and because she visited a bookstore every night after work, read omnivorously, and jotted down favorite passages or thoughts. Mourn her because the bright promise of her 23 years was snuffed out so casually and thoughtlessly.
Mourn for Emilio Ortiz, Jr. because he was a prankster who always made his family laugh, because he played with his daughters every night, because for fun he was a DJ at Teddy's Bar in Brooklyn. Mourn for Laura Rockefeller, who donated her singing and dancing talents to a traveling children's theatre run by her parents and served on the staff of the Jewish Repertory Theatre, and because her dog still looks up hopefully whenever he hears a car door slam. Mourn for Colleen Frazier, who was four feet tall and every inch of it firebrand, a woman determined to make the world friendlier to people with disabilities. Mourn for Lorisa Taylor, who adored her husband and children, and died the day after celebrating her seventh wedding aniversary, where she danced so much that she had to take her shoes off to walk back to the car.
Celebrate the lost life of Franco Lalama, the Port Authority engineer who gloried in Italian music on the radio, gardening, and making barrels of potent red wine. Mourn for Susan Getzendanner, whose treks through the Himalayas and other mountains of the world were featured in Sports Illustrated for Women and made her "a circle of friends that encompassed the world," from Peruvian peasants to Tibetan monks. Glory in the life of Gary Haag, a man known to his neighborhood as "the pied piper," whose yard was the one that all the neighborhood kids played in, who "was always pitching the ball, kicking the soccer ball, organizing a game. When he came home from work, the kids would all dump their bikes or scooters wherever they were and run on over."
Mourn not just for athletic, outgoing Deanna Galante but for the 7-month fetus she was so looking forward to delivering, and for her husband who "was planning for a baby, not a funeral." Mourn for Lars Qualben, who no longer walks his son to the school bus stop every morning, testing him on prime numbers and square roots as they walk, and for Edelmiro Abad, who spent his life attending one dance recital and competition after another for his three daughters.
Ordinary people all, who did their jobs but were not their jobs, who laughed, loved -- and because they were human, not plaster saints, no doubt snarled and whined from time to time. Not heroes, perhaps, but so much more than simply victims. They were valuable lives.
And isn't that enough? Would we ourselves not settle for such a tribute?
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