The story of the three football players who were lost at sea—two NFL players and one former college athlete—is more than just heartbreaking. The sole survivor’s account of how one of the lost young men—William Bleakley, the former college player—swam under their boat to retrieve three life-preservers and gave them to his friends while holding on to a cushion in the heaving seas was heartbreakingly inspiring. William Bleakley was a hero.
And yet you won’t hear much about him in that context. Instead, the tale of the catastrophe that killed him and the other two men will be milked for its pathos for a few milliseconds of the news cycle, and then discarded. The general understanding of what a hero is has changed.
What, after all, were Sullenberger’s alternatives when he discovered that his plane was about to go down? To hand over the controls to his co-pilot and run screaming through the cabin?
It’s conventional to say that at a time when our public life is full of scoundrels and the country is in the throes of several simultaneous crises, we need all the heroes we can get. But our expectation of what qualifies as heroic is as depressed as our economy.
No one can, or should, dispute the fact that Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who crash-landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15 after a flock of birds disabled one of its engines, is an admirable and exceptional human being. I would kiss his hands if I met him. Responsible for the lives of 155 passengers and his crew, Sullenberger didn’t crack under the strain of a life-and-death situation. He guided the Airbus 320 onto the freezing river expertly and coolly, and waited until his crew evacuated all the passengers and then left the plane themselves before he abandoned his post. He acted responsibly, professionally, skillfully, morally.
In other words, he acted like a commercial-airline pilot.
He did what just about any commercial-airline pilot would have done in a similar situation. Like Sullenberger, all such pilots are highly trained and experienced fliers, with hundreds of hours of flying time before signing on with a commercial carrier, usually including many hours as fighter pilots in the Air Force. Like him, they are cool under pressure, responsible, skillful, moral—in their professional setting—human beings.
Or to put it yet another way, Sullenberger did something that seems to be increasingly rare in American life. He did his job. He didn’t shirk his duties, cut corners, make excuses, blame someone else, or fail the people—his clients, you might say—who put their trust in him in a commercial context. He didn’t lie, steal, defraud, embezzle, or claim to be one type of person when he was actually someone entirely different.
But perhaps because we have grown so used to hearing about investors who pilfer rather than invest, and legislators who bribe, buy, and sell instead of legislate, and politicians who trim their sails instead of serve their constituents—perhaps because we are so weary of people who seem to be playing roles instead of fulfilling responsibilities, we regard anyone who does what he is paid to do, and is what he claims to be, as a hero.
What, after all, were Sullenberger’s alternatives when he discovered that his plane was about to go down? To hand over the controls to his co-pilot and run screaming through the cabin? To sit there drinking scotch and popping Xanax and praying that everything would be OK? To parachute out and leave passengers and crew to their fate? (In fact, commercial planes don’t carry parachutes. That’s why hijackers looking for an airborne getaway always have to ask for them.) Sullenberger’s only choice was to land the plane in order to save himself and everyone on board.
Of course, if you put it this way, Sullenberger’s breathtaking grace under pressure does not fit the definition of heroism. When we hear the word “hero,” we think of people who do have a choice in life-or-death situations. The fireman who runs into the burning building to rescue someone has a choice of whether to do so or not. Sacrificing his life for another person’s is not part of the job description. And surely there are times when other considerations—like his children, or other people who depend on him to survive—hold a fireman back from rushing into a situation where he might have to give his life to save someone else’s. No one would accuse him of cowardice, but that choice to risk his life for another is what makes him a hero. (With typical dignity, Sullenberger himself approvingly quoted his wife making the same comparison, and the same point.)
The same goes for the person who jumps into a frozen river to save someone who is drowning, or the person who jumps into the path of a speeding car to sweep a child to safety. They all have a choice. Sullenberger didn’t. He acted exemplarily, admirably, beautifully. But he did not act heroically.
Maybe it’s because flying has become such a powerful metaphor in American life that Sullenberger was promptly declared a hero of almost supernatural proportions, hailed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who plans to give Sully the key to the city, honored by both the US Senate and the House of Representatives, thanked by President George W. Bush in a telephone call, invited by President-elect Barack Obama to his inauguration, and immortalized throughout the media. Sully had become the anti-Mohammed Atta. Just four weeks after President John F. Kennedy was shot, Idlewild Airport had its name changed to John F. Kennedy Airport, as if American sunniness had to convert tragedy into infinite possibilities for flight, for change, as fast as possible. In January, just four days before the advent of a new president, the country was ready for another metaphorical boost.
To my mind, though, Sullenberger’s celebration as a hero had less to do with our metaphorical hunger than with the four words Sullenberger uttered shortly after landed the plane. He was, he said, with great dignity and humility, “just doing my job.” In our benighted moment, that modest self-definition rose to mythic proportions.
It was William Bleakley, though, who did more than his job, and seems to have given his life because of it. Behold a heroic man. If we are not celebrating him, it is perhaps because we don’t like to associate heroism with sadness—we had enough of that with 9/11. Or it could well be that the horrible image of Bleakley and his friends fighting towering waves that are about to thrust them under water might be a metaphor that we simply cannot bear to face just now.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics for numerous publications. He is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.