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Show Me Your Heroes

... And I'll show you your society

Recently, on a commercial air flight, just before landing, the pilot came on the PA system and admonished us to all give a round of applause to our armed forces, in particular to any “veterans or active-duty military members who might be on the plane.” It was an awkward moment. Some folks clapped, some looked confused or annoyed, and some both clapped and glanced with scorn at the non-clappers. Our culture hasn’t really evolved a common response for orders to applaud on command—especially for arbitrary reasons. I mean, this wasn’t really an armed services moment. It was a routine public transit experience, like a train pulling into a station.

But hey, I slapped my hands together for a few rounds. There are idealists among those who join the military, and they risk their life for their beliefs. That’s commendable. But as our wheels screeched against the runway, I started thinking about who else deserved my applause. Hell, what about the flight attendants? They had just nursed us through some turbulence, continuing to make their rounds even when the ride got bumpy and the “fasten seat belt” icons lit. They regularly work under hellacious conditions for far less pay then they deserve, making our whole air transportation system possible. And, like members of the armed forces, they’re prone to real heroism when things go awry. They sit among us on the plane, their heroism unrecognized and their service habitually unthanked. How about a round of applause for the flight attendants?

As we taxied around the airport, my mind kept racing. What about line cooks and dishwashers? Their jobs suck, but they soldier on, keeping many of us fed, while barely making enough to feed their own families. There are some heroics: a single parent raising children on an Applebee’s salary. I’d clap for her.

In the terminal was a billboard “saluting” the military—the folks we’d just applauded. Sure, they’re passing through the terminal and could use some recognition. But so are elementary school teachers, social workers, snow plow drivers, dental hygienists, bus drivers, plumbers, DMV clerks, toll collectors, welders, highway pavers, census takers, garbage collectors, grocery store clerks, eldercare and childcare providers, licensed practical nurses, hospital orderlies, janitors, utility line workers, payroll clerks, house painters, and workers in a thousand other underappreciated professions. Their unrecognized toil, like a soldier’s heroism, keeps our society functioning. Where are the billboards welcoming them to their rushed sojourn through the Atlanta airport?

Then there are the taxi drivers, slaughterhouse workers, hourly construction helpers, and migrant farm workers who can’t afford air travel and will never pass through this terminal, but who die on the job or contract chronic, work-related injuries or diseases with alarming frequency. When are we going to command a plane load of travelers to applaud for these people, who literally give their lives in service to a society that will use them up and toss them aside without so much as a “thank you”? Who nailed the roof onto your house?

I don’t want to wax on here, but we’re surrounded with daily heroics: a battered spouse who survives abuse and raises a family; someone surviving hate and war, yet maintaining their compassion and humanity; people who overcome a plethora of personal adversities but still manage to care for and inspire their neighbors. We’re surrounded every day by heroes from whose sacrifices we all benefit, but no pilot ever makes an announcement to recognize them and no airport ever erects a sign to welcome them.

Earlier this summer I went to see a fireworks display at a small Central New York village’s annual festival. A band played before the show, entertaining a small crowd sprawled out on a lawn, drinking beer, eating barbecue, and chatting up each other. Midway through the band’s last set, seemingly after they’d struggled though every other song they knew, the vocalist dedicated the next song to “the troops.” It was the “The Star-spangled Banner.” And it was a mega-awkward moment as folks jumped up to attention from their lazy sprawls like toast suddenly popping out of the toaster. Some spun around with their hands on their hearts, but alas, there was no flag to salute. About half the audience eventually froze, standing at attention. Half of those folks had their hands on their hearts, facing every which way. We know what to do when the national anthem comes on at the beginning of a hockey game, for instance, but it’s not fair to spring it on a bunch of unsuspecting people relaxing and listening to music. Simon says, “Salute the troops now!” But how? What are we supposed to do? Then the divisive anger sets in, with bewildered saluters, twirling in search of a flag, scowling at those who just kept drinking beer and chatting, like they did during the last song and will do during the next. Why do we need to suffer these moments?

A few years ago in Buffalo, the city government erected metal street signs memorializing the spots where police officers died in the line of duty—died as civil servants serving the citizens of Buffalo. The single largest cause of these deaths was vehicular accidents. Other city workers have died in vehicular accidents while on the job, but we don’t memorialize them. The second largest cause of death for police officers was violent assault. Likewise, we’ve got a running death toll for murdered taxi drivers, convenience store clerks, pizza delivery drivers, and other private sector workers, who, like the slain officers, also gave their lives serving the residents of Buffalo. But we don’t erect signs memorializing them, either. So why do we have this double standard?

The problem isn’t memorializing fallen police officers or celebrating the troops. They deserve recognition for their sacrifices and their contributions. The problem lies with the rest of us—with a society whose definition of hero seems narrowly limited to those who wear uniforms, carry guns, or have quasi-military ranks. This elevation of the police and military above all other forms of heroism is called militarism. To date, no democratic society has been able to exist in harmony with such a value system.

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