Reflecting on 9/11 and the superhero first responder

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters have been elevated in TV shows, movies and advertising as modern heroes

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Have you ever noticed how many products firefighters pitch in the media? The image of a firefighter in action is used to sell everything from batteries to insurance policies, from antacids to makeup.

America found an enduring champion in firefighters: sacred in sacrifice, noble in intent, and constant and unrelenting in purpose.
America found an enduring champion in firefighters: sacred in sacrifice, noble in intent, and constant and unrelenting in purpose. (Photo/Wikipedia Commons)

One TV commercial depicts a firefighter sliding down a pole into a luncheon of women with heartburn. Another has a firefighter falling through a living room floor, landing directly on his SCBA. Rising tall amid the burning devastation and EverReady, he finds a child standing in plain view ­– waiting quietly to be rescued, thanks to batteries that never fail, just like a firefighter.

Some firefighters feel disdain for such displays. Others feel a sense of pride over moments preserved and memories shared. Of course, these exquisite flashes are exaggerated and stylized, but that’s how they bring a swelling to the soul and a welling to the eyes. Don’t stress the lack of PPE or applaud the abundance of musical flourishes in these commercials … and don’t tear up at the end of “Backdraft.”

But this is not about who is in these commercials. The real question is why firefighters are getting as much airtime as athletes and pretty girls. Whether it is delivering packages or powering up playthings, what suddenly makes firefighters the answer to all of society’s challenges and the salesman for all things commercial?

A new kind of superhero

Sept. 11, 2001, exposed a new kind of villainous threat and, subsequently, a new kind of hero. America found an enduring champion in firefighters: sacred in sacrifice, noble in intent, and constant and unrelenting in purpose. Outside of glossy comic superheroes, firefighters were given this mantle, wanted or not.

The noted psychologist Carl Jung believes hero worship stems from our collective consciousness and ends up in the archives of anthropomorphic mythology absent individual determination. Simply put, we all need someone we can believe in and relate to, someone who will sacrifice to make things better and protect us all. From fictional heroes to real-life examples of bravery, we have always relied on the champions of truth and justice to deliver us from evil, no matter where, when or who.

The cost of the superhero creation

After 9/11, Americans would never be the same. Trauma and tragedy filled the skies along with dust and debris. Like everyone else during that fateful morning, from California to Connecticut and from Maine to Florida; firefighters felt vulnerable, angry and helpless, especially those who responded to the twin towers, the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania.

The brothers and sisters who responded in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington defied that desperation and hopelessness, keeping an unwavering commitment to the highest ideals of our profession – a courage that could not be obscured by the cloud of overwhelming events.

Much has been and will be written of the tragedy of 9/11, detailing and analyzing every interval. Principle will replace pontification and mankind will reconcile this profound movement in our universe. All emergency and law enforcement personnel who consecrated this sacred time and space will forever echo in our doctrines and beliefs as a united nation. The twin towers will become timeless and their durability will be even stronger than the concrete and steel they were built with – constructing a universal symbol of unshakable faith.

The events of 9/11 ran counter to humanity and left little to guide this country out of its hateful disgust. A path of understanding and forgiveness seemed rightfully lost.

We want to believe that all people are essentially trying to be good and decent and it is this brave determination that Americans choose to take from that day. They have edited their recollections and modified their memories to create knights in shining armor, a small militia of resolve that suffered but did not succumb – that day or any day. This overwhelming moral desire to be right has selected first responders and firefighters in particular, as their defenders of values, beliefs and behavior.

The firefighter legacy

First responder commercials and their promotional exposure give the public insight into EMS; fire; and federal, state, local and port authority enforcement services, however foggy. While a few medics, Jakes, and cops may lose some dignity, it is a fair trade.

Firefighters bring the knowledge that the best of humanity reveals itself in every crisis and that forgiveness comes in lives saved and folks helped. While we may not comprehend the misguided justification of such a cruel act as 9/11, its cause has become less manifest than its effect.

So when a man shakes your hand after a call, accept his gratitude with satisfaction and pride on behalf of all firefighters present and past. When a child comes into the firehouse staring wide-eyed in awe and reverence, don’t greet her with the problems of the day. Elevate yourself to her level and reflect the gift that is our profession.

Share with all, the truth that firefighters carry – there are no heroes, only heroic acts. Describe a collective courage specified at great cost and given to all firefighters without condition when it is time to measure up.

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