The Making, And the Fall, of a Hero


August 07, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Consider this imaginary scenario:

A man dives into a lake, risking his life to save a drowning child. The local media rush to the scene; a hero is born. For that is what the headlines will call him.

That night the hero's friends take him to a restaurant for a drink. After the strain and excitement of the day, they want to treat him to some well-deserved relaxation and to toast his good deed. One drink becomes several.

A little woozy, the hero drives home. On the way, he veers across the center lane and slams into another car, killing the driver.

Now what do we call him?

"Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "and I will write you a tragedy."

Officer Gregory William Overstreet was a hero like the man in my hypothetical little story. An everyday hero. An ordinary person who did something brave and worthwhile.

In 1991 he was making a drug arrest in Pioneer City when somebody shot him, twice. He lived because the bullets hit his bullet-proof vest (one ricocheted into his shoulder).

The Anne Arundel Police Department named him "Officer of the Year" and gave him a Purple Heart. The newspapers called him "Robocop."

Now when we write about Greg Overstreet, we don't write a hero story. We write a tragedy.

Officer Overstreet was indicted last week on charges of extortion, bribery and misconduct in office. He allegedly tried to blackmail a suspected sexual offender into paying him $500 to keep quiet.

The Sun's story about his downfall never uses the word "hero," not even in the past tense. Perhaps that is because, now that he has fallen, we're not quite sure if that accolade ever applied.

What is a hero, anyway?

The dictionary's answer is simple: a person "of distinquished courage or ability, admired for his or her deeds or qualities."

That definition leaves room for a lot of people. There are different kinds of courage and different kinds of ability, and we all do not admire them equally.

When Michael Jordan quit basketball, for example, one Sun reporter was heard to wonder, somewhat disgustedly, why the newspapers were making so much hoopla over a "guy with a good jump shot."

More recently another colleague and sports non-enthusiast fumed over all the angst expended on O. J. Simpson's behalf. She couldn't understand why some people were torn over his plight "just because he could run fast."

But Mr. Simpson wasn't just someone who could run, nor Mr. Jordan merely someone who could jump. Athletics is an ability, just like writing, painting or invention, and those two men were the best in the world at what they did. They could take a game and make it art.

Not everyone appreciates sports. To those who do, however, men and women of extraordinary talent can qualify as heroes.

What we forget is that, except in rare cases, the heroism of great athletes, musicians, warriors and statesmen -- and of everyday heroes like Officer Overstreet -- extends only so far. Heroic talent does not equal heroic character, and heroic courage does not make a person perfect.

Michael Jordan has a gambling problem. O. J., if not a murderer, at least was a horrible husband. Richard Wagner was a great composer and a bigot. John F. Kennedy inspired a generation while he fooled around with women. Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War and drank too much.

Is it wrong to admire the best such people have to offer even if they are not wholly admirable? Should we all turn cynical and conclude heroism doesn't exist any more when those we have anointed as heroes turn out to be made of flesh and blood?

What Greg Overstreet did several years ago was heroic, even though what he is accused of doing now is pretty awful.

He didn't deceive us into thinking he was something he wasn't when he took that bullet; we deceived ourselves.

We do it all the time -- insisting that a person who does an extraordinary thing is perfect and pure, without sin, a kind of god, when all the time he is just a person, just like us.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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