But our military is in the Middle East because we don't live in a perfect world. Instead, it's a world where innocent children die of cancer while bullets find the Pat Tillmans of this world. A world peace-loving countries suffer without natural resources while others are blessed with oil.
Stories of bloodshed and genocide stretch from the earliest histories of mankind--from Cain and Abel all the way to Saddam's anonymous mass graves, from the Holocaust, which we commemorated last Sunday to the genocide in Rwanda, in which, ten years ago this month, 800,000 innocent and poor black men, women, and children were slaughtered in under a hundred days.
The world was mostly silent during those massacres, as silent as G-d himself. They did nearly nothing to save them--not because they dislike blacks and Jews but because they love themselves. The history of the world is a tale of selfishness and self-absorption. If someone is suffering on the other side of the world, what does it have to do with me? Only a small minority of people have taken to heart the principal religious message which says that every human being is G-d's child and that every human life--not just your own--is of infinite value.
Those few who do stand up, risk their own lives to protect those of others, are what we call heroes. They are radically different from the false heroes. The heroes who play for fame and glory are more interested in adventure than service. They are distinguished by the rewards they receive rather than the sacrifices they make.
Real heroes like Pat Tillman are animated not by the kind of insecurity that forces them to hog the spotlight. Animated instead by the courage of their convictions, they are strong enough to walk away, into the anonymity of a desert where the fight for freedom is going on. They take off the pads that make them look muscular in exchange for a bulletproof vest. They swap colorful jerseys with their names in bold letters on the back for a dusty, beige uniform that makes them look like a hundred thousand others. They trade the roar of the crowd for the roar of cannons.
Why would a man exchange an expensive home for a tent? What would motivate him to give up popping running backs to dodge bullets?
The actions of the hero always transcend selfish human calculation. The hero is the man or woman who cannot help but respond to a calling. Pat Tillman decided that his life would be spent protecting the freedom of others, even if no cameras would record his sacrifice, no hall of fame would honor his service, no equestrian statues erected to his glorification, and no movie would ever be made by which he would be remembered.
There are two kinds of people who witness an event like Sept. 11, 2001. One kind--the vast majority of us--watches it on TV, feel remorse for the innocent lives that were lost, and then retire to our comfortable beds, thankful to G-d that it wasn't us. And then there are the select few whose conscience will not let them sleep comfortably at night. They make a radical change, give up the material comforts America is famous for to answer freedom's call, avenge the lives of those who were lost, and grant liberty to the millions who live under the sledgehammer of a tyrant.
Few of us will ever rise to be a Pat Tillman. After reading these words, you will likely sigh at his loss and move on to read other news of the day, just as I will go on to other pursuits when I finish writing them. The rest of us can at least stand in awe of a giant and feel shaken to our core by the injustice of his loss. While we may not run to Iraq to replace him, we can honor the soldiers that will. While we may not completely emulate him, we can at least be inspired by him. At the very least, let us promise we will never forget him.