Shawn Drury's Blog is now at

Latest posts are at

Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

When It’s Not Enough To Be a Hero

Posted by sdrury on January 3, 2010

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into an icy Potomac River moments after taking off from Washington National Airport. The weather in the Washington, DC area that day was frigid, with the temperature in the low-20s and the region had been blanketed by snow from a record-setting blizzard. Washington National, since re-named after Ronald Reagan, who ironically was president at the time of the tragedy, had been closed for a few hours that day due to the inclement conditions. A subsequent investigation into the accident revealed that the plane had not been properly de-iced and should never have taken off.

All but five of the passengers and crew were killed. Before coming to rest in the Potomac, the plane struck several cars on the 14th Street Bridge, killing four people.

Amid the senseless loss of life, what emerged from that day were stories of incredible acts of heroism.

Two such stories were those of Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, neither of whom was affiliated with the flight or with emergency personnel. Olian was parked on the 14th Street Bridge on his way home from work as a sheet metal foreman. Seeing what was happening, he leapt out of his car, ran down an embankment, and upon hearing the desperate shrieks from the river, jumped into the Potomac while bystanders looked on. Navigating through ice floes, he yelled words of encouragement and told the survivors that help was on the way even though he wasn’t sure if it was. In retrospect, it seems that Olian was attempting to comfort people, complete strangers, as they neared a horrific death. They later reported that his actions gave them the hope and impetus to struggle on.  Once Olian’s own act of humanity had been completed, he was later pulled to safety himself.

Skutnik was working in a nearby office at the time, and like many others, went close to the river bank to watch the rescue operation unfold. Once at the scene, it became apparent to him that one passenger was too weak to grab the rescue line that had been thrown to her from a helicopter. Even though numerous rescue personnel were nearby, he refused to stand by idly, watching someone drown or freeze to death. So, he tore off his coat and boots and jumped into the river and assisted the woman in reaching the life line that led to her rescue. The woman was then taken to a local hospital, her life saved by a complete stranger.

To make it plain, both Olian and Skutnik threw themselves into frozen water to save the lives of people they did not know.

This past Christmas day another air tragedy, albeit of a different kind, may have occurred aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 were it not for another act of heroism. Above Ontario, Canada, as an Airbus with 290 passengers on board was making its final descent to Detroit, a 23 year-old Nigerian terrorist named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device he had sewn to his underwear. Fortunately, the device did not detonate properly, but it still created a small fire and passengers later reported hearing a popping sound. As the terrorist was attempting to re-ignite the device, he was grabbed and subdued by another passenger, Jasper Schuringa, preventing him from doing any more damage. The fire was extinguished in short order and the perpetrator, later identified as a member of Al-Qaeda, was handcuffed by a member of the crew with assistance from Schuringa who had endured minor burns to his hands. The plane landed just after noon, without further incident. Schuringa was applauded by his fellow passengers as a hero.

By the afternoon, as word about the near-cataclysm had spread, an associate of Schuringa contacted CNN, informing the network that there were pictures of the incident, taken from a cell phone, available for sale. The following day, Schuringa, who is a Dutch national, signed an agreement with CNN, giving them the rights to the photograph in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money. In the next few days, Schuringa made similar arrangements with the New York Post and ABC News. Other news organizations reported that they also were approached by Schuringa, or his representatives, with the offer of rights to photos in exchange for financial considerations.

When news of Schuringa’s post-flight maneuverings gained traction on the Internet, many wondered if he was exploiting a national security failure for personal gain. Nevertheless, he continued to appear on media outlets, without compensation, to describe his story. It should be noted that Schuringa lists his profession as a film director and told interviewers that what had happened to him over Canada bore an eerie resemblance to a script he had written several years earlier, not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of their efforts, Olian and Skutnick were given Carnegie Hero’s Medals, (among the many honors they received) and were lauded by President Reagan during his State of the Union address two weeks after the disaster. In 1984, a television movie aired,  paying tribute to their actions along with the many other feats of bravery that occurred that day. While many books have been written that mention both men for inspirational or spiritual purposes, neither Olian nor Skutnick has written a book to call his own. As of 2009, both men were in the same line of work as they were that day they plunged themselves into the Potomac.

It almost goes without saying that Schuringa would not be the first person to profit from an act of heroism and he most certainly will not be the last. Yet the alacrity with which he seized his moment gives one pause. How long after suppressing the threat did Schuringa think he think he ought to promote his own bravery? Would he have acted in such a manner had he thought there was a chance he wouldn’t be recognized? The answer to the latter is “of course he would” and only Schuringa knows the answer to the former. Schuringa’s accomplishments should not be minimized, for his fellow air travelers are undoubtedly grateful for his presence on their flight. But a distinction must be made, particularly in comparing his deeds to those of Olian and Skutnik nearly 28 years earlier. When Schuringa thwarted the terrorist, first among the lives he saved was his own. Conversely, Olian and Skutnik intentionally risked their own lives for the benefit of people they did not know. On the hierarchy of heroic altruists they rate a notch or two higher than Schuringa. The specific acts of gallantry aren’t so much the point here as are the responses that followed and the conditions that created them.

Commentators are quick to point to events where things “change”, as if drawing a circle around a date on a calendar will clarify complex human behavior. However, in considering Schuringa’s conduct post facto vis a-vis Olian’s and Skutnik’s, it is apparent that a fundamental change has taken place.

Previously, in a more Romantic era, people did things (worked, prayed, cared for their family, maintained good health, etc) because, in an empirical sense, they were the “right” things to do. You did the right thing as a matter of course, indifferent as to whether someone else was watching you, with no expectation of praise. Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger from the 1940s and 1950s, once remarked that it’s easy to give it your all when the stands are full, with thousands watching your every move, but it was the truly great players that gave their maximum effort regardless of circumstance. Often, doing the “right” thing meant putting the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual.

Things are different now, different than they were in 1982 and a mere silhouette of what they were in Ted Williams’ day. Now, one can’t help but wonder if the only reason people do the “right” thing at all is so they’ll get credit for it. By extension, one wonders if being acknowledged for a heroic deed has become more important than the deed itself.

In 1982, MTV, CNN, and ESPN were in their infancy. Their success was far from assured. Watching any of these channels today, as they document the endless parade of people with insatiable desires to do something worthy of the camera’s gaze, that’s hard to believe. There are no shortage of subjects who feel themselves worthy of notice.

To be fair, human beings are, and have always been, social animals that seek feedback, and we do all manner of things to get it. To be sure, positive feedback is preferred, but some attention is better than none at all. With the explosion of media in the last generation, there’s more opportunity than ever before to be appreciated. The problem is, that although the number of places a person can be appreciated has multiplied exponentially, the things that merit such appreciation haven’t.

So, scenarios were manufactured to produce them. Television screens are now filled with phony conflicts, callously billed as reality shows, which exist solely for the purpose of designating winners, who, by definition, must be feted. The shows are populated by dozens, if not hundreds, of people, who seem hard-wired to engage in activities meant to elicit some response, irrespective of form. Can it be a coincidence that almost all of the “characters” in these shows were born after 1982 and, therefore, know only a world of cable television?

Lacking the prodding of producers and cameramen, some among us have taken matters into our hands by devising false crises on our own. A few months ago, a Colorado man informed authorities that his son had blown away in a balloon setting off a search and rescue mission that was followed, step by step on live television. Except the boy was perfectly fine, sequestered away so that when he was found by his father, his dad could be hailed as a hero in the news media, and therefore launching a reality of his own.

The most popular “reality” shows of them all, are, of course, sporting events, whose participants are routinely dubbed “heroic.” Let’s take this moment to be clear. No athlete, ever, while in pursuit of victory for his or her team, can have performed in a way that could be described as heroic. Admirable? Perhaps. Heroic? No. Using such terminology is an insult to people, like Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, and, yes, Jasper Schuringa, who actually have performed heroically when something more than a win or a loss was at stake.

And then there are the numerous websites where even the most quotidian of choices can be met with chords of approval, be it a knowing remark or an apparitional thumbs up. Facebook, specifically, with its 350 million users (and growing), is the king of the affirmation, allowing “friends” to pile plaudits on our choice of breakfast or our taste in music or our inclination to take a nap. Or whatever else we choose to share. How long did it take Jasper Schuringa to type, “Just foiled a terrorist plot from another one of those crazy Muslim suicide bombers!!!” into his Facebook status?

We shouldn’t be offended by Schuringa because we created him. And given the chance, most of us would have mimicked his actions—including what he did after the plane landed. We are entitled, after all.

Before anyone rings a death knell for heroes, be advised that as long as there are police officers and firefighters there will be acts of unselfishness. But in our current landscape, where the line between competing character traits—like narcissism and altruism—is blurred, determining who or what makes a hero has become virtually impossible and by necessity we need someone to tell us who they are, thereby diminishing the heroes in the process.


Posted in Current Events, Essays, We're Doomed - Americans, We're Doomed - Humanity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bill Maher Interviewed

Posted by sdrury on December 26, 2009

Rather than go into the list of issues in which Bill Maher and I concur, it’s much easier to say that we start from the place, which is a humanist perspective. In most any policy decision, there is the “right” thing to do, that is, the choice that best serves the vast multitudes, rather than a particular constituency. A person must divorce himself from electoral politics to be a humanist because it is position, that is, by default, globalist, whereas politics is, by default, territorial.  

This point of view makes someone like Bill Maher perplexing to someone like Joe Scarborough who exists in the narrow world of voting, whether it’s in a polling booth or on a couch with a remote control. The interview is from Newsweek’s December 21, 2009 issue:

Scarborough: So, liberal comedians were wringing their hands a year ago in The New York Times over the prospect of telling jokes at the expense of the chosen one, Barack Obama, at the beginning of his presidency. Have any comedic themes emerged over the past year surrounding Barack Obama that you find funny?
Maher: Well, let me correct your question first of all. Comedians weren’t wringing their hands, the media was. The media gets a hold of a question, and then like sheep all repeat it ad nauseam until we are so sick that we want to jam a needle in our eye. But yes, six months ago I was getting booed by my own audience when I would make jokes about Obama. I remember one show I had to say to my audience, “He’s the president, not your boyfriend.” And at the time, what I was basically saying was that he wasn’t putting it on the line against the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and big agribusinesses, and the credit-card companies, and the banks. Basically, the American political scene didn’t have a party that was representing the left at all, and that’s what we thought we were voting for. Well, they’re not booing anymore when I say that. I said that he needed more Bush and Cheney his personality and my audience went nuts.

Speaking of Dick Cheney, do you feel betrayed as a progressive by the president’s decision on Afghanistan to defer to the generals’ wishes, much in the way Dick Cheney and George W. Bush did over the past eight years?
I don’t feel betrayed, I feel disappointed. I don’t feel betrayed because he did run on the idea that, well, we’ve got to have some war. I mean, come on, we are Americans. So he was not untrue to what the campaign said. But things haven’t changed in Afghanistan. Mostly we found out that the government was even more corrupt than we thought. [Laughs] Which is saying something. And I think that would have given him enough cover to get out from his campaign pledge. He didn’t have to do this.

Was he afraid to stand up to the generals or an American public that you suggest likes a good war?
I don’t think they like this one anymore. I mean, there are even a number of people on the conservative side who are against this war. I have no idea what his thinking is. Something happens when you become president. They give you the plane, they give you the helicopter, everywhere you go they play “Hail to the Chief.” You get your ass kissed 24 hours a day. You think that America can do anything.

Let’s go back to your discussion about health-care reform that you are now talking about in your stand-up act. If the president ends up supporting a health-care-reform bill that doesn’t contain a public option, but does have the amendment that restricts abortion funding, will progressives have been betrayed or abandoned by the Democratic Party running Congress?
I think that we were abandoned by the Democratic Party years and years and years ago. I don’t, as I said, think we have a progressive party. They were abandoned by the Democratic Party on gun control. They were abandoned by the Democratic Party on catering to the needs of the banks and the credit-card companies before the people. I mean, when the Democratic Party is OK with 30 percent interest credit cards, I think any discussion of betrayal is late. There’s not a society in the world that hasn’t condemned usury. There is not a religion, you’ll be happy to know, or a religious philosopher that hasn’t condemned the practice of usury. The reason we don’t have loan sharks anymore is because that’s what banks do legally. If there was any time to bring out a can of socialist whoop-ass, it would be now on that.

How could Barack Obama, after 11 months in office, manage the trifecta of offending progressives, who believe he hasn’t gone far enough, conservatives, who believe he’s gone too far, and independents, who are acting like they did when Ross Perot was running around the countryside?
That’s a good question. I’ve heard you ask that on your show. There is no good answer because he is such a bright guy, so you wonder how he could do it. He was never going to get the conservatives. I mean, I don’t know why he spent the amount of time he has so far in his administration currying the favor of people who don’t like him. Someone has to give him a memo that says, “They’re just not that into you.” You are the wrong age, the wrong party, the wrong color. They’re just never going to get behind you. So, you know, I hate to say it, but I agree with your boy Pat Buchanan. If Obama was in Congress still, he would have been against this troop buildup in Afghanistan. He would have been with Kucinich.

But let me correct you. Pat Buchanan is not my boy, Pat Buchanan is America’s boy, OK, Bill?
[Laughs] Certainly not America’s boy.

You know, speaking of Pat Buchanan, who certainly under-stood where populists were in ’92 and again in ’96: Buchanan seems to believe that Americans are exhausted by war, after eight years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Don’t you think the president could unite progressives and conservatives like George Will, Pat Buchanan, and myself by actually having the courage to stand up to the generals and say, “You get 18 months and no more. [Then] bring the troops home.”
Well, yes. His own top military guys said there’s probably less than 100 Al Qaeda [in Afghanistan]. So why can’t we call up George Bush and get the old MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner and put it up and march right out of there? You’re right, it might unite progressives and conservatives.

You’ve heard this theme as well. For eight years Republicans worked around the clock to delegitimize Bill Clinton. For the next eight years, Democrats tried to delegitimize Bush. Now Barack Obama is enduring the rage of his conservative opposition. How do we step back from a political system that seems to promote mutually assured destruction, regardless of whom we elect?
Well, I would take some issue with that question, and this is something conservatives like to do, which is to spread it around equally when that’s not really the case.

Here’s the problem, though, Bill. Hold on, Bill
Do you really think if there was a terrorist attack on the order of 9/11, Republicans would rally around Obama like Democrats did around Bush?

You do?

I think they would for about as long as Democrats rallied around Bush before going after him. And here’s the problem, Bill—when I make this argument to Republicans, they of course say, “Well, Joe, I take issue with what you’re saying.” It’s just it’s always the other side’s fault.
Right. I hear you. I’m not saying that Democrats are at all blameless. They are responsible, for example, for the process of politicizing Supreme Court nominees.

Right. So how do we step back from that? Is it possible?
That is the $64,000 question, and every president who gets elected runs on the platform “I’m going to change the tone in Washington.” But then the tone in Washington gets even worse. I don’t know if a president or a leader can do that, because the provenance of that problem is the people. I don’t know how a leader can fundamentally change what’s in people’s hearts.

Is it time for an independent?

An independent? Well, that’s possible. Isn’t the independent registration now bigger than either political party?

It’s up in the 40s. It’s the highest it’s ever been, according to Gallup.
That’s twice as many as Republicans, and I think it’s more than Democrats too. You know, I guess what we need is an independent leader. Maybe you and I should run together on a unity ticket, Joe?

I think we could do that. [ Laughs ]
The unity ticket of Scarborough and Bill Maher. I’ll be happy to be the vice president because you have experience in Congress and I don’t really want to get up before noon.

That will bring America together. Now, if I can’t do that, what about Lou Dobbs? Would you serve with Lou Dobbs on an independent Lou Dobbs ticket?
Ah, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to have lunch with Lou Dobbs once a week.

What do you think about TV hosts like Lou Dobbs talking about running for president?
Well, I think it’s the age we live in. You know, he certainly has no less credibility than Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was in Bedtime for Bonzo, and you guys think he was the greatest president since George Washington. So, I’m just glad we have a constitutional-law professor who was able to somehow sneak into the presidency. I’m just going to hold my breath for the next seven years.

You have any holiday plans?
I’m going to try not to do interviews.

Not that I don’t love talking to you. You’re an exception. No, I don’t have big holiday plans. You know I don’t celebrate the whole baby-Jesus thing, so we can put the religious part of it off the table. I don’t really have much family left. I really like the holidays as a time where people are away and the phone doesn’t ring and nobody can call you up and say, “Oh, can you do this, can you do that?” I wish it would last longer.

Well, speaking of our favorite topic this holiday season, what are your thoughts about God? Do you believe in any supreme being in any form?
Joe, I put this all in my movie Religulous. It’s on DVD.

I know. But you wouldn’t do our show.
It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the secular-minded person at Christmastime. Christmas is a national holiday, and I don’t object to the holiday. Of course, I have wonderful memories of Christmas when I was a child, and it’s a great time of year for family to get together. That’s a nice thing. Families should bond. But also to reassess. It’s a good time to say “Oh” and take stock and say, “Gee, how was I ethically this year?” That’s the problem with faith, Joe. What it does is it kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be saving your own ass, which is the focus of Christianity. The focus should be, I’m a good person, and I do that just for the sake of being good. Like the Christmas song says, “Be good for goodness’ sake.”

OK, final question from me. You talk about the fact that you had good Christmas memories. Do you have a favorite?

Going back to your childhood? I’m trying to help you here with all of the people you’ve pissed off already. So give me your favorite Christmas memory.
I don’t know about a specific one, but what I remember was a Christmas tradition, which was playing Robert Goulet’s Christmas album. My mother was a big fan of Robert Goulet, and so many housewives were in the 1960s, Joe. I don’t know if you remember that at all, but Robert Goulet was quite the matinee idol. In fact, I once flew my mother out to Las Vegas to have dinner—we all had dinner together—Robert Goulet, his wife, my mother, and I. It was the thrill of her life. It was the best Christmas album, we just wore that thing out. I remember after Christmas we had a party, which was odd, because it was a Christmas party, and my father was very Catholic but my mother was Jewish. It was all the Jewish relatives who lived in the area, so they came to the Christmas party, and then they would leave and we would all be exhausted. And we would all just sit there, and [enjoy] the glow of the fire, the fire on the TV—we didn’t have a fireplace—and listen to the Robert Goulet Christmas album.

It doesn’t get better than that, Bill Maher.
And then I would go upstairs and masturbate.

All right. Thanks, Bill.

Posted in Current Events, Humor | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »