January 20, 2002

Firefighters, Statuary & Hero Making

An open letter to all those who would want a statue of three white firefighters raising a flag:

Back when the Murrah Building was blown up by McVeigh, there was a picture of a firefighter carrying an infant. You all remember it, we all do. It was incredibly touching. That photo is burned on the memory of most thoughtful Americans. Me personally, it was the flowers on the fence that did it for me.

Now we have another tragedy. These terrorists outdid McVeigh, and now I suppose those who want to burn memories into our heads figure they have to outdo what was done last time. This is a very bad idea.

Speaking as someone who, at one time in my life, scraped and shoveled rust out the insides of chemical storage tanks with nothing more than a handkerchief over my face, I know what it's like to work in dangerous places. There are millions of Americans who have dangerous jobs, and we all depend on those people just like we depend on firefighters. Sometimes danger comes with the territory. Everybody develops skills to keep their jobs and what seems superhuman to some folks, is just part of a days work to others.

Whether or not what many firefighters did on that day and the days that followed seemed superhuman to all of us Americans or some of us, we can debate forever. But what should be clear to anyone who gives it some thought, is that raising a flag is not an act of heroism. Just like most folks, I found the picture patriotic and appropriately sentimental. Just like most folks I raised a flag myself. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last time. A picture is worth 1000 words, but they'll be 1000 different words to 1000 different people. It was a great picture and should have been left there.

Now somebody comes along and says, hey a picture is not enough, let's erect a statue. Well, I say that's going too far. I don't need to be beat over the head with this and I don't appreciate being told whom I should consider a hero. These three don't qualify, not for more than the picture. The picture is what it is and that's plenty.

As it is, I’m a little bit grudging in even using the word hero. Nobody needs to be reminded how important a firefighter's job is, or an air-traffic controller, or a bailiff for that matter. And nobody knows this like those firefighters themselves. I don't think there is much anybody can do that hasn't already been done in support of those brave people who died just doing their jobs. Nobody is going to forget, ever. In case anyone forgot, there is a long well-respect tradition of making perfect memorial symbols of those who die. They're call gravestones. So really what purpose does a statue serve, when songs have been sung, prayers been sent, gravestones set and images printed around the world? Hero making.

In the hero-making business political points have to be made. And guess what, the fire department itself wanted to make a political point about diversity by suggesting that instead of the three white men a mix of ethnicities should be cast on the statue. Should that come as a surprise? Furthermore this controversy has become a media event picked up by conservative and liberal magazines and editorials. What did you expect? That people would just give quiet and dignified support and understanding for some people who are just trying their best to do a good job? That was what you should have expected, but you asked for more.

The moment firefighters want graven images made of them, when they decide to become icons and idols of heroism, patriotism and all that's good and great about America, they subject themselves to a different level of criticism, and deservedly so.

Every American has, somewhere in their hearts, a soft spot for some image, some sound bite, some newspaper clipping they read, some video they saw, some story they heard. It's impossible at this late date not to. So when people insist on piling one more image, this time a controversial statue, into our hearts, is it any wonder that hearts turn hard?

We've seen all we need to see. We've heard all we need to hear. It doesn't take all day to recognize the sun. We know the story; we saw the picture. I thought we were all supposed to get back to our jobs. My advice? Try to be good firefighters, don't try to be good heroes.

Ps. Did you ever stop to wonder why the American flag works as a symbol of patriotism and heroism all by itself? Because it doesn't have any faces on it.

Posted by mbowen at 07:30 AM | TrackBack