Board notes: Actions of heroes ultimate in our democratic values

departing presidentBy Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

Who needs these heroes, the men and women who earned the Carnegie Medal?  Those they rescued did, of course, but isn’t the idea of a heroic volunteer rescuer a bit dated?

No.  We all need these heroes, we need them badly, and we need them now more than ever.

America (and, similarly, Canada) is unique among major nations in that it is not a “tribe” unifying around blood ties, but rather around shared ideas and values.  To be German, French, or Finnish says something not just about nationality but also something about race.  To be an American, even the most “real,” dyed-in-the wool patriotic American, says nothing at all about race.  America was founded on ideas, ones articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and those ideas are what bind us today.  Abraham Lincoln reflected on this in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, when he spoke of the founders and the Declaration of Independence and the ideas behind it:

“[The founders] were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. …

“We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.  If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration [loud and long continued applause], and so they are.”

The ideas of the Declaration of Independence created and sustain a nation of tremendous ethnic diversity.  What gave those ideas power and reality, though, were the sacrifices Americans undertook to carry them into action, from the War of Independence to the Civil War to the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.  At the individual level, the rescues performed by our heroes exemplify two foundational beliefs from the Declaration, i.e., that all men are created equal and that we have created this country as a voluntary community.

Each of our heroes saw someone in peril and in the instant recognized that the two of them shared an equal claim on life.  Each hero then acted voluntarily to share that peril.  One in five of them died in the attempt.  They put their own lives at risk to rescues strangers—they are mostly strangers—who are no part of their own family or “tribe.”  Their rescues offered only risk, with no benefit to themselves or their kin.  Their actions were the ultimate demonstration that all men, family, friends, and strangers alike are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

America has been good (if not perfect) at immigration, and that is one of our relative strengths in the world today.  Given our current total fertility rate, we have to be.  We have been as good as any country in the world at welcoming strangers to our cultures and values, even when many kept ties to their old culture as well.  (My own grandfather was born in this country and fought with Pershing on the Mexican border, but that man could polka!)  Lately, our ability to assimilate newcomers has come under pressure on two fronts.  First, our immigrants are more diverse.  Lincoln spoke of German, Irish, French, and Scandinavians.  That’s what diversity looked like in 1858.  Today we are receiving many people from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, representing very different cultures.  When we introduce them to our culture, we have more explaining to do.  Second, there is a debate within the country as to whether our culture and values are even worth “selling” to immigrants.

It’s fine, I guess, for politicians, pundits, and academics to debate the value of our traditional culture and values.  Who knows what immigrants make of that?  But they cannot help but notice the way that Americans help each other and do so across ethnic, religious, and social lines.  Americans of great and ordinary wealth give prodigiously to help others:  The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, or the Jimmy Fund at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.  And at the individual level, they see our heroes.  They see an A.R. Johnson rescue Wen Ting Huang from assault by an eight-inch meat cleaver.  They see an African American Wesley James Autrey shield Cameron P. Hollopeter beneath an onrushing New York City subway train.  They see a Timothy E. Mosher rescue Mana Mashoon from a knife attack.  The values of heroism and altruism that shine through these acts are important threads in the fabric of our culture.


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