Monday, August 07, 2006

We Could Be Heroes

The Los Angeles Times writes (can't find this online tonight):

It's hard to imagine there will ever be a better example of the folly of judging a filmmaker by his politics instead of his work than "World Trade Center," a movie opening Wednesday about a team of Port Authority police officers who become trapped in the twisted wreckage of the twin towers. The film celebrates self-sacrifice, personal heroism, the sanctity of family and essentially all that is good about America, with no unsettling pangs of troubling doubt, guilt or dark conspiracy.

I've seen neither "United 93" or "World Trade Center," but from what I've seen of them, the directors made the right movies. They pointed their cameras at that day in such a way to find ordinary Americans and show what they did.

In part, we want to honor those thousands of lives, whether they were the uniformed heroes of New York city or the civilian heroes of Flight 93. But in part we want to feel the measure of their bravery brought to life in front of us, the better to sense our common humanity: They were heroes, but the chance to be one could have been offered to any of us that day. Fates decreed it was them, not us.

And in part, we want to see what they experienced in an immediate, real-time sense, to try to grasp how we would have reacted in a similar case. Would we have been as brave? Both films seem dedicated to absolute verity, and I think this, in part, is why.

In my pampered, suburbanite life, I've only had a handful of experiences that tested me. Once I was riding down Vine Street with my then-girlfriend Lis, and we saw a horrible, car-flipping-through-the-air wreck half a block ahead. She pulled over to the curb and I jumped out and ran to the crash. I helped one guy crawl out of his wrecked Trooper, with the wheels still spinning, got him to the sidewalk, and then held up onrushing traffic till the cops got there. And it didn't occur to me until later to consider my vulnerability amid the fire and shattered glass and cars coming up unexpectedly on it all.

Miraculously, no one was killed, and I admit it felt pretty good to have been tested and not to have failed. No danger of hubris, though. As Hemingway understood, bravery is in large part simply "ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination." That was certainly my case.

But I thought of that day a couple of years later, after the Sept. 11 heroism stories started to flow. I don't pretend I had any sort of comparable experience on Vine Street that day. But when I thought about the hundreds of firefighters who ran to those terrible towers that were raining down molten metal and flaming people like tears, and who went into them -- went up into them -- and died there, I felt the flicker of connection. Like most other people who heard the stories, probably, I wondered if I would have been so brave, if I was made from the same stuff as those young men, and I had that one memory to say, "I think so."

There's a quote at the end of this excellent piece from the San Antonio paper, about the "death letters" our soldiers and Marines write, just in case. It's from one such letter, and it's a quote from a Louis L'Amour novel the dead Marine's dad had given him as a boy:

One that really stuck in (my) head and I tried to live by since the day I read it was on courage: "Whenever there was trouble you never had to look back to see if he was there. You knew damn well he was."

I hope I lived up to that.

Which is, I think, in the end how most of us would want to be remembered.