When American Heroes Fall Off Their Pedestals

America loves heroes. We love them in movies, in comics, and in life. We love them in plain clothes, in capes, and in uniforms. We love them so much that we don’t require much to earn the label. Act a little braver than usual, do something just a little out of the ordinary, or react just a little better than the average person and some pundit or another will gladly lift you up as a hero to the masses. Nothing makes the public happier than a feel-good story of an all-American hero.

But heroes are also human. Heroes may act with valor in one moment, and damning human error the next. What do we do when our heroes behave poorly, dishonorably, or criminally? What do we do when a hero behaves in a way that disrespects the very institutions that have put them in the position to be a hero in the first place?

Twice now, police officers in New York City have turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funerals of fellow officers killed on duty. Protesting officers feel de Blasio’s acknowledgement of concerns regarding police brutality against people of color helped create the environment that led to the deaths of the two officers. They have defied orders from their Commissioner and requests from the families of their fallen colleagues. It’s a simple and silent act of protest that sends one clear message: “We do not respect you, and there are limits to your authority.” 

The public, naturally, feels they must take sides. You are with the police, or you are with the mayor. You are with police unconditionally and without hesitation, or you are cognizant of systemic discrimination and ongoing brutality. You are with heroes, or you are against them.

Of course, it’s never so cut and dry. We rightfully honor and appreciate the men and women who have dedicated their careers to keeping us safe, but within that appreciation there is room for rage at those who disrespect their power and status by using it to oppress, to terrorize, to commit acts of violence. It is also possible to expect those in uniform to adhere to the standards of behavior that create the foundation for our respect and admiration. Without those standards, the system is meaningless.

But it’s not just police who demand we decide where to place prestige, on individuals or on institutions. Consider the 2012 Kandahar massacre, when a U.S. Sergeant killed 16 civilians, including sleeping children, and attempted to burn their bodies. Consider the high rate of sexual assault in the military and the low rate of prosecution or conviction. Does a uniform absolve these heinous and violent acts? Or do these acts sully the uniform? Once someone has been made a hero by entering a venerated institution, are their actions justified or can we demand they hold themselves to a higher standard of humanity?

Let me share a personal example of drawing lines around individuals within institutions. On the night before Thanksgiving in 2010, my brother and I were driving back to our mother’s house, a 30-minute drive down desolate country roads. It was dark and late, with cops on the prowl for drunk drivers, so there weren’t many people on the road.

We were cruising at about 60 on a straight stretch of asphalt when headlights popped up on the horizon. The driver was going fast—faster than us—and as the truck came closer the dots of light started swerving around in the lane, making bigger swings in either direction. My brother braked, just before the pick-up truck cut across our lane and into the ditch. The driver drove in the ditch for a moment, then cut back up and swerved in front of our stopped car, coming so close to hitting us head-on that I’ll never forget the way the bile rose in my throat.

The license plate had a familiar badge, clear as day in our headlights as he drove directly towards us. The drunk driver who nearly killed us is a volunteer firefighter. I respect firefighters a great deal, but let me clear: I hate that man, and the fact that he spends his time fighting fires does not erase the fact that he was within a hair’s breadth of ending my and my brother’s lives. I can admire the institution, but not the individual.

Part of respecting a broad institution is demanding that those who represent that institution respect it as well. If we do not, the honor intrinsic in being part of the military, or police force, or fire department is on precarious ground. If an individual who has signed on to save lives becomes a threat to those they are meant to protect, they do not deserve to be protected from justice for once taking a pledge they subsequently broke. We must preserve the dignity of our institutions, not provide safe haven for those who would dishonor them. We have to expect the best of our heroes, and not settle for their worst.

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