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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.


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