This is the week to contemplate heroes.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I drove into Washington from Springfield, Virginia, and nodded at the Pentagon as I approached the 14th Street Bridge.
When I arrived at the office ten minutes later, the receptionist gasped: “Isn’t it horrible? The Pentagon?”
“Not really,” I replied, “the traffic wasn’t bad at all.”
That plane must have hit moments after I sailed past.
On television we watched the towers fall. We heard about the other rogue plane, the one still flying after everything else was grounded, the one we all knew was headed to the U.S. Capitol, two blocks away.
We knew that people who don’t know how to fly a plane can miss their target by a few blocks. We feared we might end up sheltering for days in the basement, so we sent an intern to buy a flat of water bottles.
And then we heard that Flight 93 was not in the air any more. In time, the whole story emerged, and Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers became my personal heroes, and America’s.
But not heroes like Alexander the Great, who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, or Rome’s Pompey, who left rivers of blood wherever he triumphed.
Journalist Tod Lindberg has thought deeply about heroism. His new book, The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern, explores the difference between modern heroes and their classical forbears.
“The hero as slayer vs. the hero as lifesaver: That is the crux of the difference between the classical and the modern form of heroism,” Lindberg writes. “Greatness versus equality. Ego versus generosity. ‘I am someone’ versus ‘I can do something for someone.’”
Lindberg’s analysis of U.S. Medal of Honor citations finds that as time passes, the country’s highest award is given more often to life-savers than to life-takers.
Today our national heroes are firefighters who regularly risk their lives for strangers. They are people like Lenny Skutnik, who dove from the 14th Street Bridge into the freezing Potomac River to rescue a drowning woman. They are people like the off-duty servicemen who risked their lives to prevent a terrorist attack on a French train last month.
A general desire for a quiet life drives most of us, and the fulfillment of that desire is “a kind of culminating position of political order,” Lindberg wisely notes.
“The great deeds heroes have performed and the great risks they have run in order to save the lives of strangers have contributed to the egalitarian ethos of the modern world by establishing that the modern meaning of greatness is service to others,” he says.
If the modern meaning of greatness is service to others, then I submit that the heroes of our age are the thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands—of individuals who comprise the pro-life movement around the world.
Who else voluntarily bids farewell to a quiet, comfortable life so that they might work, sacrifice, and suffer to save people they will never meet? Who else gives of their financial substance and their free time and quiet weekends—or their whole life—to plead and protest and work to save unknown children? And endures ridicule or worse because of it?
Some of us know the story of Joseph Scheidler, who left a promising career in business to invent and perfect street activism on behalf of life. He risked all his worldly possessions to fight the “racketeering” case the National Organization for Women brought against him in 1986. For twenty years, he and his family suffered brutal attacks—legal, financial, and physical—but they fought all the way to the Supreme Court, where they won, thereby preserving the legal right of the pro-life movement to exist (Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, 2006).
Joe (who celebrated his 88th birthday on Labor Day) will be mortified to read these words. He would be the first to say that he’s no hero, that he’s no different from every other pro-lifer. Ego versus generosity.
His son Eric now carries forward his work. Pro-life activists tend to share their voluntary activities with their families. That is why there are baby strollers at 40 Days for Life vigils, and why the March for Life has become the nation’s largest single adolescent rite of passage.
This explains why more and more Americans reject abortion. It explains why our movement is winning. It is human nature: Moral authority comes from service to others. Vast moral authority is held by the unsung heroes who serve the cause of life.
Cecile Richards, as president of Planned Parenthood whom do you serve? Whose hero are you?