Wednesday, November 21, 2001


We toss off terms too lightly

        Dale Earnhardt, Oprah, Batman and Jim Carrey. Before Sept. 11, “heroes” all. But now?

        Dale Earnhardt drove fast and died. Jim Carrey has a rubber face and Oprah a million girlfriends, with whom she battles the urge to eat cheesecake.

        None compares to a New York City firefighter scrambling up a doomed tower. It's almost obscene the way we used to throw the word “hero” around, and I count myself among the guilty.

        From January 1997 to Sept. 10 of this year, “hero” or “heroes” appeared in the Enquirer 5,430 times. Skateboarder Tony Hawk was a hero to his fans. Bengals kicker Doug Pelfrey was a hero to local charities.

        And in one of my columns, a homeless man in Covington was a hero for finding and returning a women's purse and wallet. Sure, he did the right thing, but is that enough anymore?

        For answers, I consulted the sophomores in Veronica Mitchell's English class at Lloyd Memorial High School. Some had just finished writing poems about Sept. 11.

Standing up for beliefs

        “"I always thought of heroes as, like, Martin Luther King, or Schindler from the movie Schindler's List,” said Kelly McGill. "They stood up for what they believed in and changed the lives of so many people.”

        Others named their moms or best friends, Princess Diana or basketball star Shaquille O'Neal.

        “A hero just affects someone's life in a positive way and motivates them to be a better person, like in sports, to try harder, do better,” Michael Gebhardt said.

        “Children in Third World countries are heroes because they can live their lives in just horrible poverty. I think they're real troopers,” said Andrea Shannon Rodgers.

        We debated whether it matters how the word is used. Heroes are personal choices, someone said, so who are we to argue?

        This sounded reasonable, but we kept going until we changed our minds. Surely a citizen has the right, even the duty, to fight the ascendency of popular madmen.

        Rachel Costello said Hitler may have been a hero to some Germans “because he was doing something that benefited them.”

        Some Arabs think the same of Osama bin Laden, another student pointed out.

The "hero' factor

        So heroes have to meet a standard. But what is it?

        I brought up my pet peeve. Since the attacks, anyone who accidentally finds themselves in harm's way is a hero. Postal workers suddenly deserve a medal for sorting the mail.

        The students rejected this sort of lazy thinking. True heroes make sacrifices for others, or they go on transforming journeys and share the lessons.

        In a way, widespread use of the word is positive because it suggests an abundance of goodwill, Tina Montesi said. But too many “heroes” starts to sound like all those “sorries” — another word we say but don't mean. Its overuse has contaminated the process of apology.

        Heroes do more than save lives or have risky jobs. A person standing on a curb isn't a hero just because he instinctively grabs a child's arm and yanks him out of oncoming traffic. He is, instead, a quick thinker at the right moment.

        Our conclusion: Let us have our heroes. but be prepared to explain them. We owe it to those firefighters to protect the integrity of the word.

        Karen Samples is the Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. She can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or at


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