Heroes, Renowned and Unrenowned

Last week Washington, D.C. twice came to a halt as two U.S. Capitol police officers were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The statistics were impressive: Both funeral processions were some 14 miles long, with over 1,000 vehicles in the motorcades; hundreds of police came from as far away as California and Puerto Rico to pay homage. The visuals were emotional: motorists pulled over, silently standing outside their cars with hands over hearts paying tribute as the motorcades came by; little children holding little American flags, not really understanding the importance of the event and awestruck by the grandeur of it all; gruff men in blue in tears.

From the moment an apparently deranged gunman opened fire in the U.S. Capitol, felling two policemen on the afternoon of July 24, to the moment Officer Jacob Chestnut was buried a week later almost to the minute, not just Washington D.C. but all of America mourned the deaths of these two heroes.

But why the national outpouring of grief? Because two policemen were killed? But that happens on a regular basis in this country. In fact, last year alone it happened 160 times. Consider this chilling statistic: Every 54 hours a police officer is killed while on duty.

Was it a result of the way they died? Officer Chestnut, God bless him, mercifully never knew what hit him. Officer John Gibson, we are told, put himself directly in harm's way sacrificing his life to stop the gunman. But again, policemen die all the time doing just that. In truth, every police officer that checks in for work every day commits to doing just that. So what made this tragedy so different?

Was it the location, that the venerable symbol of our nation's democracy was so violently desecrated by this assault? But this wasn't an attack perpetrated by America's enemies, it was not an act of terrorism by some Abu Nidal faction desiring to make a political statement. It was, apparently, the wanton act of a madman. And if we are to believe the polls, the American public certainly doesn't revere the inhabitants of that building.

It was a little bit of all of the above but I think it was the timing that made the difference.

It is often said that this country no longer has heroes, and yet the term is bandied about regularly in the public conversation. The quarterback who leads his team to a Super Bowl win is a "hero." Indiana Jones is a "hero." Even the machinists from Ohio were labeled "heroes" by some after picking the winning Powerball numbers. It's a term that's become void of meaning, for it says nothing about heroism.

In making the ultimate sacrifice Officers Gibson and Chestnut reminded us what real heroism is all about. But perhaps they also jolted the American consciousness to recognize how far we've strayed from our appreciation for heroism, immersed as we are in the world of Monica Lewinsky, and a corrupt Commander-in-Chief to whom "heroic" never will apply. Bill Clinton is obsessed with a heroic legacy he will never earn; these two men etched their names in the annals of history simply by living the principles of duty, honor, country.

You sense an almost desperate yearning for real heroes as part of the American ethos today. It explains the overwhelmingly positive reception for "Saving Private Ryan." The movie is the medium of the masses and Steven Spielberg has used it to remind America that our country is full of unappreciated heroes.

Much has been said about the first scene in that movie, the grisly, ultra-violent rendition of the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach. We are shocked because in our clinically comfortable existence we are conditioned to think of the 10,000 Allied casualties as a statistic to be found in some unread Time-Life set gathering dust on the bookshelf. Yet each and every one of those men suffered horribly in that carnage.

On ABC's "Nightline" the other night a group of D-Day veterans gathered to talk about "Saving Private Ryan" and their own experiences. One veteran, a medic, said, "I remember picking up a hand that had no arm, a foot that had no leg. Even a head that had no body." "It's about time they made a movie to show the world what actually we endured," said another. "You try to tell people about World War II and D-Day and they say, 'So what?'" Added a third: "The [Veterans Day and Memorial Day] holidays today don't commemorate anything. They commemorate sales at Macy's."

Memo to Macy's: Do your country, and yourself, a favor. Announce that this coming Veterans Day not only will you not have a sale, you will close your doors in silent tribute to all of America's veterans. It's the kind of tribute heroes like Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson deserve.