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Heroes or Role Models?
08/11/2011
IconI want to write about the difference between a hero and a role model. I saw an article a while ago about the Japanese senior citizens who were volunteering to diffuse one of the biggest nuclear meltdowns in history at the Fukushima nuclear plant. There is a 250 member volunteer group, and all the members of the group are over 60 years old. They are led by 72-year-old Yasuteru Yamada who hopes his seniors group, the Skilled Veterans Corps, will help end the crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They will likely die doing this.

The group says it is uniquely poised to work at the radiation-contaminated plant, as the cells of an older person's body divide more slowly than a younger individual.

In other words, they have a better chance of doing the work and maybe not getting cancer or radiation poisoning and dying.

"We have to work instead of them," says Yamada, referring to the estimated 1,000 workers currently at the nuclear plant. "Elders have less sensitivity to radiation. Therefore, we have to work."

Yamada is a former engineer for Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. and offers decades of experience, he says. A cancer survivor, Yamada says he values his life but wants to make a difference in the years he has left.

The prime minister's special adviser [some joker] to the nuclear crisis publicly dubbed them, the "suicide corps."

65-year-old Masaaki Takahashi bristles at the name Hosono gave his team. "I want them to stop calling us the 'suicide corps' or kamikazes," he says. "We're doing nothing special. I simply think I have to do something and I can't allow just young people to do this."

Kazuko Sasaki, 69, the co-founder of the group, says she has a number of personal reasons why she wants to work at the plant. "My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don't take responsibility, who will?" "When we were younger, we never thought of death. But death becomes familiar as we get older. We have a feeling that death is waiting for us. This doesn't mean I want to die. But we become less afraid of death, as we get older."

These men have volunteered to take the place of younger folks. Now, a little debate seems to go on in a lot of people's minds between what constitutes a hero and what's a role model. I was almost going to say "just", but let's face it, there's a big difference. You remember Captain Sullenberger of the Hudson River landing fame -- he's the one who landed the plane. Everyone called him a hero. He's not a hero. He'd be the first one to tell you the definition of a hero does not include him. So, what is the definition of a hero?

The definition of a hero was initially determined by the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, established in 1904. The "classic" definition to 'hero': someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume life risk saving or attempt to save the life of another." This is different from a role model or positive role model. We overdo the word "hero." I don't mean to diminish or dismiss the efforts of people who are in no harm's way and help somebody else. Those are good role models, but they are not heroes. Hero is a very special term.

Let's get back to Sullenberger. Sullenberger said, "My wife actually looked it up in the dictionary. We decided between ourselves that it describes someone who chooses to put himself at risk to save another." He continues, "That didn't quite fit my situation, which was thrust upon me suddenly. Certainly, my crew and I were up to the task. But I'm not sure it quite crosses the threshold of heroism. I think the idea of a hero is important. But sometimes in our culture we overuse the word, and by overusing it we diminish it." So, here's what happened:

When the engines stopped on US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, Capt. Sullenberger was not in a place of safety. On the contrary, he was in the same peril as the passengers whose lives he saved with his piloting skill. He did not have the opportunity to make a moral choice to take on the risk - it 'was thrust upon' him.

So, he did not come from a place of safety. He did not have the opportunity to make a moral choice. He was in the situation and had to use his skills. He's a good role model of a captain of an airplane who keeps his wits about him and does his job, superbly. And ends up probably saving a lot of lives if some one else had lost it when they were in the cockpit. But how savvy is he? How honest and how ethical, how moral, what kind of incredible character does this man have to clarify for all of us, the truth of what a hero is? Picking up somebody from an accident scene and taking them to the hospital is being a good role model, but not a hero, regardless of whether that person lives or dies. Jumping into the ocean when there are sharks to save somebody else? That's a hero. Your life has to be at risk, and you make a moral decision; that's a hero.

Since 1904, the Carnegie Hero Fund has granted more than 9,400 awards - and nearly $33 million - to people who have risked their lives to save others.

The extraordinary exploits include pulling someone from a burning building, standing between someone and an attacking animal, rescuing a drowning swimmer, thwarting an assault on a citizen and other facing-death-to-save-a-life acts. About a fifth of the awards have been granted posthumously.

The commission also talks about how they cringe when a victim is viewed as a hero when they survive. Making the moral decision to put yourself in harm's way to save another's life is being a hero. When you are in a situation and behave appropriately, you are a fabulous role model. But "hero" is a very, very special term. That's why we give it to military, we give it to firemen, we give it to police officers -- because they make the decision to take on an occupation that puts their lives at risk to save others.
Tags: Personal Responsibility, Values
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