Friday night I went to a movie theatre for the first time since December 2003 and Return of the King. The film I saw was also about heroism, but more pressing than Peter Jackson’s excellent work because it was based on reality. In this case, the hero was Paul Rusesabagina, who through connections, planning, and force of will saved over 1,200 people from genocide. The movie is Hotel Rwanda. I won’t call it a great movie. It’s a very good one, but the writing is too positivist in spots. A romantic scene was added. Positive Westerners get plenty of screen time, like the peacekeepers and Red Cross workers. And Sabena, the Belgian owners of the hotel, who did intervene (for which they deserve heroic credit). The negative Westerners that withdrew peacekeepers and didn’t care and dallied, not least America, are pushed aside to radio reports. I felt compelled to think only about the success, perhaps ignoring the failures. Yes, the bitter humor of my describing a movie about genocide, that caused a great deal of tears in the theatre, as “too Disney” is not lost upon me.
Why do we not build castles to praise men like Paul? “The false heroes of barbarous man are those who can only boast of the destruction of their fellows. The true heroes of civilisation are those alone who save or greatly serve them,” someone once wrote. If we believe in heroism, if we look for its ideals, we should reward those qualities. Sometimes we do, through medals. One fund distributes a medal to civilians who risk their own lives to extraordinary degrees while saving or attempting to save the life another person. The man who wrote the quote above donated 5 million dollars in 1904 to start the foundation. He was Andrew Carnegie, of US Steel, a man of questionable business morals like Bill Gates today. Yet like Sabena, and even Gates, who has given over $1 billion for disease vaccine research, and unlike many Economic Fundamentalists, Carnegie understood the notion of community responsibility. That fund is the Carnegie Hero Fund, which has honored almost 9,000 people with the Carnegie Medal for attempting to save a stranger’s life at significant peril to one’s self. About twenty percent of Carnegie Medals are awarded posthumously.
Not all medals are as pure as the Carnegie Medal. One almost as pure, and known by more people, is the US Military Medal of Honor. While one might disagree with the act of war, the acts within war that lead to this award are highly heroic. For nonmilitary service, the President awards the Medal of Freedom, and Congress the Congressional Gold Medal. Only a few people have received both. That list on this site includes people I expect, like Pope John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, and Roberto Clemente, but also some entertainers and politicians. Though they created great beauty, I wouldn’t call Irving Berlin or Frank Sinatra heroic. The qualifications for the Medal of Freedom and Gold Medal are less defined, more subject to politics and vagaries. This leads to abuse, the lack of heroism in the awards, gifts to those unheroic – or worse, Carnegie’s false heroes. CBS News reports on some of them, CIA director Tenet who lied about weapons of mass destruction, and administrator Bremer who rebuilt Iraq so (in)adequately. Worse yet, evil men can give medals, like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who took power in a 1973 coup. During his 17 year regime, somewhere between 3000 and 5000 murders occurred for political reasons, along with much torture. But the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, took the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for his diplomatic skill and brilliance. Hero of barbarous man, indeed.
I don’t expect every man to be a hero. For a start, I’m not. Have I saved someone? Do I serve civilization? No. I look for a lesser goal; I could be a good man. Goodness is my standard, what I expect for myself and for my leaders. Goodness draws people. Why are we not surprised when I listed JP2, Mandela, Mother Teresa on the dual medal list? Their lives had courage, service, standing, and heroism. Those actions, from the fairy tale, still attract us, even when we profess modernity, beyond the childhood stories. We notice when our leaders lack that goodness (note the repetition about the goodness, if not heroism, of Josef Ratzinger). And when their medals come from evil men, it reduces the moral standing of their institutions. Perhaps, in the grand inquisition of truth, it might help leaders to remember why medals exist, why we make movies about men like Paul Rusesabagina. But hey, what do I know?