I grieved for the 26 people who died at Sandy Hook Elementary school. I hope their families can find some peace, someday; the complete lack of purpose of those deaths, at the hands of a gunman who, had he not had access to his mother’s guns, likely would not have killed anyone that day. Those guns were purchased legally — background checks might have caught his mother as a disturbed and neglectful parent.
But that isn’t the reason I’m writing today. These children and adults are being called heroes all over the nation — they were not heroes, they were victims. Big difference in the meaning and the perception of those two words: Heroes behave above and beyond the call of duty, regardless of the nature of that duty. Many of our service people in Afghanistan are heroes; so is the neighbor who steps in and protects a child who is being bullied. The man or woman who rushes to the aid of a mugging victim, stopping the thief in his tracks, is a hero.
Most people are not heroes, and they would question anyone who used that label with a lack of consideration for victims of recent events. But many ordinary people act heroically every day, putting others’ welfare before their own. Occasionally, we hear the story of an animal hero, who sensed illness or affliction or personal danger, and woke the person, dragged them out of a fire, or fetched a human to help. Our entertainment is full of heroes lately, with the return of the comic book characters and television, and the questionable heroes of bloody war games.
The public perception of heroes feeds our society’s need for, well, heroes. With a hero in their midst, people often feel empowered and inspired.
However, I am angered and saddened at the characterization of ordinary, or even extraordinary people as heroes. Calling those poor children and their teachers heroes robs the families, neighbors, and the society, of the ordinary humanity of the victims, just a bunch of kids and teachers at school on a normal day, going about their common tasks. They were victims of a vicious, senseless criminal who intruded into their normality with his heinous behavior.
My recognition of these people as victims does not, in any way, diminish the special characters each was. I’m sure we would find, if we looked carefully. a number of children who were easy to teach: cooperative, interested, involved. We would also find a number of children who were quite difficult to teach: the mischief-makers, the teasers, the bullies, and many who, with the stubbornness unique to youngsters, refuse to cooperate. Similarly, the adult victims were all different, each with his or her particular personalities. Some of the teachers acted heroically, moving straight forward at the gunman in an attempt to protect their students. But no one is a hero for being shot.
I offer my deepest sympathy to the families of the victims, and to the community at large. I don’t in any way disparage the sadness of their deaths. And I suspect many readers of this post will call me insensitive and crass. If you would rather see these 26 people as somehow extraordinary, that is certainly your privilege. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of them as the plain folks that they were. By remembering their humanity, their normality, I see more clearly the horror of their deaths in this terrible act of violence.
Some of those victims may have been devilish, while others were angelic, and many, even most, fell between those two extremes. Keep the memory of that classroom in perspective, and see the plain humanity of each victim, and their deaths, as the all too ordinary horror the situation truly was, and is.