“A hero is a man who is afraid to run away.”
— English proverb.
Two horrific events in different parts of the country last week reinforced my faith in mankind. It’s easy for that faith to get a little rattled when you spend as much time as I do watching the news.
It’s my business.
Horror, it seems, brings out the worst and best in people. The worst comes from those who inflict the horrific acts and the best from those who stand up to them.
I haven’t forgotten the images of those firefighters, cops and other “first responders” who were running up the stairs of the Twin Towers while most were running down them. The massive buildings were on fire, but New York’s finest were running up the stairs as fast as they could, knowing full well they were running toward possible, or probable death.
I remember the images on the Manhattan streets below as civilians ran as fast and as far away from those towers as their feet could possibly carry them and I wondered which way I would have been running.
Thanks to social media and modern technology, there were no shortages of images of the Boston Marathon explosions. I’ve seen them in slow motion, backward and forward and the thing that stands out most are the images just after the explosions, where you see people running toward an unknown but certain danger while others ran away.
“Which way would I have run?” I wondered again. “With every rational instinct instructing me to run away from the danger, why on Earth would I ever run toward it?”
After all, our natural defense mechanisms are built for survival. That’s why there is an emotion called fear. It was put there to trigger our survival instincts. Fear generally causes three basic responses: fight, freeze or flee.
I’ll guess “flee” is the general natural preference, right after the “freeze” releases its grip. It’s the “deer in the headlights” reaction.
I’ve met many heroes in my lifetime and when I’ve asked what caused them to do what they did, they pretty much answered the same way: “I just did what anyone would do under the same circumstances.”
We know that’s not true. As the images in New York, Boston and from that little Texas town last week reminded us, not just anyone runs toward danger.
That fertilizer plant near Waco was on fire long before it finally exploded. The town’s mostly volunteer firefighters rushed to it, probably fully aware of the potential danger. You don’t have to be a chemical engineer to know what fire might do to compacted fertilizer.
From what I’ve read, 11 of those firefighters were killed and others were still missing.
In an interview with a local television news channel, a fire captain was asked about the mentality required of emergency first responders.
“Ordinary people turn into extraordinary people when things like this happen,” he replied, referring to the Boston bombings. “That’s what we do. We know what we’re signing up for.”
I suppose you could chalk some of that up to years and years of training. Over time that training overrides a mind’s natural instinct to flee. It’s what repetition is designed to do.
Still, I suspect training is not always enough and that something more is required. Most have trained to do some pretty dangerous things, but it’s never the same as the “real deal.”
I remember looking down several thousand feet from the airplane door with a parachute on my back and thinking, “This is WAY different than it was on that wooden plane inside the hangar.” My legs just wouldn’t move because my brain was screaming, “You’re kidding, right?”
And it’s that “something” that determines which way we run, or whether we jump into the void.
When horrible things happen there is a tendency to focus on the horrible people who are responsible. Then we realize that bad things happen every day and that the real test is how we handle them.
Think about that next time you bump into a cop, or firefighter, or EMT, emergency room professional or others we ask to run toward danger every day.
Images from New York to Boston to a little town outside Waco provide plenty of evidence that mankind is still populated by some extraordinary human beings. If you look closely enough, they will be the ones running against the grain.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.