The Diminished Meaning of the Word “Hero”

Ronald E. Yates is an author of award-winning historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy.

Our society seems obsessed with labels. Take the word “Hero,” for example. It is applied in the most absurd and inappropriate ways to people who don’t deserve that distinction.

When Whitney Houston died in 2012, for example, I couldn’t believe people were calling her a “hero.”

Why? Because she was a wonderfully talented singer who eventually threw her life and career away with a deadly addiction to different drugs such crystal meth, marijuana, cocaine, and pills such as Xanax, Flexeril, and Benadryl?

How exactly does that make her a “hero?” It doesn’t. It doesn’t even make her a good role model.

And what about others who have been accorded the “hero” appellation?

Remember US Airways Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, who in 2009 landed his plane full of passengers on New York’s Hudson River after his engines conked out? Sullenberger was quickly labeled “hero”–a term he says is not appropriate.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

“That didn’t quite fit my situation, which was thrust upon me suddenly,” he said. “Certainly, my crew and I were up to the task. But I’m not sure it quite crosses the threshold of heroism. I think the idea of a hero is important. But sometimes in our culture, we overuse the word, and by overusing it, we diminish it.”

The Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Hero Fund Commission defines a hero as “someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume life risk to save or attempt to save the life of another.”

“When the engines stopped on US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009,” Commission president, Mark Laskow wrote, “Capt. Sullenberger was not in a place of safety. On the contrary, he was in the same peril as the passengers whose lives he saved with his piloting skill. He did not have the opportunity to make a moral