Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2017

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Reflecting on the meanings of freedom and heroism

It’s called the high cost of freedom.

Ever since a courageous group of colonists, led by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others, wrote and presented the Declaration of Independence, citizens of the United States have been risking life and limb to defend its lofty goals.

It isn’t easy to achieve the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but this uniquely American quest has been the rallying cry in war and peace for 237 years. We celebrate that special document every Fourth of July and the independence that we claimed from Mother England and the taxing King George III.

We lose our citizens in wars to preserve freedom, we lose them as a result of vicious and inhuman terrorist attacks, and we lose them daily on the streets as those who take oaths to defend and protect us lay down their lives to preserve ours.

That is about all I could think about this past week as so many Americans celebrated the spirit of independence that has been the hallmark of our nation since our forefathers declared it so in 1776.

I wasn’t thinking about wars or terrorists attacks (although we should always have those who perished on our behalf in our thoughts). No; I, like many Americans, was thinking about 19 firefighters who lost their lives in Arizona while trying to protect their fellow citizens.

I remember back in the early 1970s — yes, I can remember back that far — when there were demonstrations against the Vietnam war. I was walking along a Washington, D.C., street with my wife, Myra, and my father. It was a beautiful night, the beauty of which was marred only by the smell of tear gas or a police siren. The chanting of the ever-present Hari Krishnas blended into the landscape.

Suddenly, there was an explosion around the corner. Without thinking, I ran toward the sound. My father grabbed me by the arm and told me to stop. Even though he was a man who always ran toward danger at the first opportunity, he was concerned that my instinct was to do the same. He strongly suggested we go the opposite way. Myra agreed.

That night illustrates a clash between what I believed is a normal human instinct — to run toward danger to see if I could help — and a parent’s instinct to keep his children safe. Both instincts have merit and sometimes, those instincts conflict.

That’s what I was thinking about after the terribly sad news that 19 young Americans died — members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Arizona — while doing what they loved to do and what they did better than almost anyone else on the planet. I listened to some heartbroken parents talk about their sons with great pride, not only for how they lived but, especially, for how they died. In service to others.

Everyone praises first responders when they do the hard work of saving lives that many of us by choice have left to others. That’s OK; protecting and serving is not for everyone. Sure, when there are no other choices, most of us would voluntarily step up to the plate but that hasn’t been the case in the United States for a long time. Thankfully.

The real tragedy of the Hotshot deaths was that they were fighting that fire at that time to save stuff. The people had already gone. But to those young men, saving homes, saving memories and saving stuff was important. That is why they went toward the danger when everyone else was fleeing from it.

I understand how badly everyone feels — I hear it in every conversation about those men — but what I have some trouble understanding is why some of us, when there are no fires to fight, lives to save or homes to protect, can’t wait to criticize.

Yes, we should be critical of abuses that take place, but what I hear from some people is what, in light of the great dangers faced, amounts to petty criticism of the price we pay for what first responders actually do — the very things we don’t do. We complain about salaries, we complain about benefits and we complain about responsible retirements when these responders can no longer serve. (And I put teachers in the same category of those who do great service for others and who do what so many others can’t or won’t.)

Saving lives? Walking into burning buildings? Looking Mother Nature in the face and not backing down no matter how great the odds? That is real hero stuff and that is worthy of our respect. And our tax dollars.

Those Hotshots would have paid the people of Prescott, Ariz., to let them do their thing, to let them run toward the danger regardless of the risks. That puts them in the same category as the colonists who took up arms against an overwhelmingly well-armed British Army and won our independence.

On this weekend, we have shown our respect and gratitude for those who fought for our freedom. We should also celebrate the lives and the service to others that was epitomized by the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

They have given modern meaning to life and liberty. The pursuit of happiness will come when time has passed and their families understand the sacrifice they made for their fellow Americans.

The rest of us should take a lesson. We are a better country when we live for others as we live for ourselves. That’s another core American value worthy of celebration.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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