As someone who has spent much of his professional life immersed in the American popular culture, I have long been troubled by its pernicious effects on children. Rock stars and movie actors have become our kid’s heroes. My own young daughters, although raised in an orthodox home were their exposure to the culture is at a minimum, still tell me that when they grow up they want to be actresses.
Enter the horrible events of September 11, 2001.
Sometimes, the greatest light emerges from the deepest darkness. And now, one of America’s most terminal ills is being healed by the tragic events of the World Trade Center disaster. America awoke to a different landscape on the morning of September 12. The tall man-made structures that once dominated the environs were no more. But far from Manhattan being desolate, in its place now stood the towering and giant figure of a new kind of hero. Carrying his dusty and soiled fire coat, dragging his weary bones back to the scene of the disaster, wiping the sweat from his blackened brow beneath his battered fire helmet, this brand new real-life hero dominated the New York skyline.
Just think how far we’ve come in two weeks. Prior to September 11th, the heroes of nearly all our children were the idols of the popular culture; the celebrity singers, the small-waisted starlets, the giant NBA stars, the top fashion models. America was a society that loved the famous and lavished the rich. We devoured the gossip columns for each morsel of Russel Crowe’s latest conquest, and we stared fixated at HBO for Carrie Bradshaw’s latest installment. We worshiped the movie star, we adulated the rock star, and lionized the millionaire. These were the all-American heroes.
We closed our eyes and imagined ourselves as them. We were awed by their Cliffside houses and their tall bodyguards. We looked at our own everyday spouses, and felt the shame of ordinariness, and so often wished for a life that was more like the ones we watched on Entertainment Tonight.
But last week in America, all this changed. Amidst the rubble and the smoke emerged a hero not celebrated for their mimicry in front of a movie camera, or their shapeliness in a bikini, or their ability to throw a ball through a hoop. As we watched with sadness, shock and anger at the devastation caused by the brute terrorists, we began to admire men and women who are near the bottom of the earning ladder but at the pinnacle of the hero’s summit.
Our collective consciousness became focused on those who helped others: the firefighter, racked with grief but firm with resolve, the people of New York who had to be turned away from the blood banks when too many showed to give of their very life so that others might live. We sat riveted to our television sets in the hope that one of the rescuers would save someone from the rubble. In the midst of all this true heroism, the deeds of movie stars and athletes seemed so, well, ordinary. Who really cared if someone stepped out in a Versace dress, or if someone’s batting average improved over the last week?
Those were such minor accomplishments when compared with the heroism of those who were walking through the valley of the shadow of death so that they might bring a soul or two the land of the living. Miraculously, in the week following the WTC bombings, the gossip columnists curbed their columns- so transfixed were we as a nation on those that were actually doing something worthwhile, that we had no energy, or desire to focus on the shallow and trivial.
In the past week, our children were finally given real heroes to emulate. We must hope that one of the lasting effects of this week’s events will be for our kids to take down the posters of Curt Cobain and replace them with Dan Walsh from Long Island, Fire Company 5, Ladder 4. And then, maybe, with our children having an image of greatness before them, will they stand a fighting chance of becoming achieving feats of real heroism as great men and women.