As I was struggling on the bike at the gym on Friday, I saw on television the story of the British plane that lost power and crashed. The pilot was being heralded as a hero (“The British pilot who made an emergency crash landing into London’s Heathrow airport is now being hailed as a hero,” ABC News) because he managed to crash-land the plane without seriously injuring any passengers. I turned to my gym-mate and asked, why is he a hero? why wasn’t this a case of him doing his job?
By asking these questions, I wasn’t meaning to demean his bravery or competence, or to state that any pilot could have done what he did. What I mean to ask, though, is what constitutes a hero (a very subject I think we had to take up in a high school English class, if I remember right)?
I’m reading Giovanna Borradori’s Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with JÃ¼rgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, and I’m struck by this exchange:
BORRADORI: One last question: What are your ideas on heroism?
HABERMAS: The courage, discipline, and selflessness demonstrated by the New York firemen who on September 11 spontaneously put their lives on the line to save others is admirable. But why do they need to be called “heroes”? Perhaps this word has different connotations in American English than it does in German. It seems to me that whenever “heroes” are honored the question arises as to who needs them and why. Even in this looser sense of the term on can understand Bertolt Brecht’s warning: “Pity the land that needs heroes.” (43)
Habermas seems to ask the right questions here, I think. Who needs these heroes and why? Perhaps this is the question that could inform us in the question of “what is a hero?”
I also found the use of “land” instead of “people” or “country” by Brecht (whose work I am unfamiliar with) as particularly interesting at this point. On Friday in the Post 9/11 theory course, we were discussing what constituted patriotism (as opposed to other, stronger loyalties that Zizek seems to privilege), and someone brought up the roots of patriotism: devotion to a land, rather than a state.
Is Brecht right that a land that needs heroes is something to pity?