A long time ago, I took a summer course in something, I don't remember what, but it sounded interesting at the time. On the very first day, the professor started a discussion about heroes. Who were our heroes? And why?
Going around the room, people said this and that, and I don't remember any of those, either. What I do remember is that several of the older students (full-grown adults, not student students, if I remember correctly)said that the professor himself was a hero of theirs. He accepted the accolade politely and, I thought, a little too glibly, as if he was pleased with the answer. It put me off, although I can't think of what a correct response might have been.
I couldn't think of a hero for the life of me. Later, with the professor urging me to pick one, just one, I picked the worst hero I could think of - somebody like Jesse James or Billy the Kid. It was an astonishingly petulant response, and I cringe to this day when I remember it.
But I am still uncomfortable with the word "hero." To me, it's an accolade that should be given rarely and never lightly. But lately, we seem to hear it all the time.
Every single soldier that went out to Afghanistan or Iraq is automatically a hero. I suspect lots of them know they aren't, and cringe a little inside when they hear it.
Friends of mine insist that folks like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden are heroes, just because they did something of which those friends approved wholeheartedly. I don't think that approval is good enough for hero status.
After 9/11, I heard two stories, both of which impressed me. I thought of the word "hero" in both instances. The first was the passengers on Flight 93, who sacrificed their lives on their own terms to take down a plane that might have done far greater damage. The second was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only person of either house to vote against the authorization of the use of force. I understood that the barfight that was Afghanistan was going to go down no matter what, and there were ways in which I did not disapprove entirely. But I admired Congresswoman Lee for her singular stance against it. I think I might be able to run into a burning building, if the occasion arose, but I'm not at all certain I would have had the courage to stand alone in the manner that she did.
Currently, we're in a national debate about taking stand of some kind, what kind nobody really knows, against the purported use of chemical weapons by Bashar al Assad in Syria. President Obama, after drawing a red line around that use, has felt intense pressure to act on that statement, to do something. People on both sides are making extremely cogent arguments for their point of view. I find myself agreeing with almost all of them.
The President, acting against the advice, or so I am told today, of his most senior advisors, is throwing the final decision to the Congress, ostensibly to the people of the United States. Barbara Lee is still in the Congress. Once again, she has a chance to stand, and I suspect I know what that stand will be. This time, she won't be alone. This time she won't be heroic. She'll just be standing where we know she stands. And that's okay.
Is Obama a hero for taking a stand against the use of chemical weapons? Is he a hero for not giving in those who advised unilateral response? Was the first one foolish? The second one cowardly? Wise?
I suspect there are people in Syria who are praying that help is on the way, that a hero is coming, that Beowulf is on his way to Hrothgar's Hall. But I don't think there are any heroes here.
I don't even know where I stand. There's not a heroic bone in my body.