Saturday, January 17, 2009

Over-used words

Today's candidates: "hero" and "miracle." The main stream media is annoying most of the time, but yesterday they surpassed themselves in the production of absolutely mindless gushing. I swear every sentence contained the words "hero" and "miracle," with both words being thoroughly trivialized in the process. (And, yes, I am aware I'm guilty, too, but I'll plead that my use of the word in the previous post was intended as irony.)

First, when did doing the job you're trained for qualify anyone as a hero? Are all jobs inherently heroic?

Second, why should having a piece of superbly engineered equipment perform the way it was designed make its surviving a water ditching a miracle?

I stand in awe of pilots, especially the ones who are trained to fly the really complex aircraft, such as military fighters and the large passenger jets. I respect their skills, I admire their dedication, and I am more than a little envious. I know they've elected to pursue a difficult, high-stress career, and, especially if they start off as military pilots, they've also elected a career that includes some personal risk. A small number of military pilots die in training accidents every year.

In any case, my reaction to seeing that US Airways Airbus floating in the river was, wow, that was one helluva pilot! He managed to put that plane down in the river so close to perfect it was unreal. Does that make him a hero? No. He did exactly what he was trained to do. The checking the cabin twice to make sure everyone really was out probably slides him over the line into the hero area, but the water landing? Not so much. Were the police department divers jumping out of the helicopter into the river to do rescue work heroes? No. They, too, did exactly what they're trained to do. Ditto the various other emergency personnel -- they were all just doing their jobs. Important, necessary work, yes. Heroic, no. (And I will confess to being a bit jaded about EMTs, police officers, and firefighters -- I've known way too many who chose the careers they did not out of any great desire to help people but because they were either adrenaline junkies or, in the case of cops, power tripping sadists.)

For me heroic implies doing something extraordinary, something where a person decides to put his or her own life at risk to help others when he or she doesn't have to: the passerby who goes into a burning building to get people out, the soldier who when confronted by overwhelming odds decides to keep on fighting rather than surrendering, the teenager who jumps into a well to save a younger child. Heroism is irrational. It's people doing things you don't expect them to do. And sometimes, especially in retrospect, it's downright stupid. (Update: It occurred to me after I wrote this that many times when a police officer or a fireman is hailed as a hero it's for doing something that their training very specifically told them never to do.)

As for miracles. . . well, as a commenter over at
Dispatches from the Culture Wars noted yesterday, a true miracle would have been if the flight crew was dead or unconscious and the plane successfully ditched in the Hudson anyway. Something like that would definitely suggest divine intervention of some sort. As it stands, though, the event, dramatic though it was, simply stands as testimony to the combination of technology and human resources performing the way they were designed and trained to. Awesome piloting, yes. Proof of good aeronautic design and materials science, yes. Miraculous, no.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I honestly believe this plane was fortunate to have a MUCH talented pilot to land that plane without "breaking up." According to most engineers - it is not easily done. I believe he may have had a little luck on his side. And the first responders - were doing their jobs. I am not a big believer in miracles either. Too much suffering in this world - to carry that belief. Have a great weekend.


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