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The Last Full Measure of Devotion
An Essay by NPR's Scott Simon

audio Listen to Scott Simon's commentary on the new heroes discovered this week.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon

After this week, we'll probably be reluctant to call people who can dunk a basketball or play a cowboy convincingly a "hero." These people can be talented, tough, and even brave. But this week, we have seen genuine heroes. Most of them have familiar-looking but unfamous faces. Caked with ash, sweat, tears, and blood, they are the firefighters, police officers, ambulance workers, and emergency crews who rushed up the forbidding stairs of burning buildings when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were pierced by airplanes and began to burn.

While thousands of people tried to run from the blast to seek shelter and safety, they ran willingly into the fire and smoke and glass. A couple of hundred firefighters and 40 police officers may have died in that kind of wreckage. Peter Ganci was New York's fire chief, 54 years old and a father of two other firefighters. William Feehan, a deputy fire commissioner, was 71. As much as any solider, they died in the line of fire.

Maybe it's unwise for any journalist to call any politician a hero. But I am pressed to find another word for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. This week, he became what amounts to a wartime leader, walking bravely over rubble, cheering shattered hearts, vowing that the city would survive. This week, America needed a jolt of New York nerve and moxy in its blood. Mayor Giuliani reminded us of the tough and beautiful stuff of which New York is made.

There are, of course, many more heroes: construction workers lifting crushing steel with their hands and arms to try to answer the call of people trapped in rubble, soldiers called to duty, volunteers who have driven overnight to offer the simplest and most necessary human gifts to keep life going -- food, clothing, kindness.

And then there are the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. When they learned that the hijacking of their plane was part of a plot to bomb some of America's most famous emblems, some of the passengers determined to stop them. Several passengers called loved one from air. They described the hijackers and their plans and said that though they would probably die themselves, they would die trying to keep their plane from killing others.

When the plane came down in western Pennsylvania, it crashed into an unpopulated field. As much as anyone who fell in battle at Normandy or Gettysburg, the people aboard Flight 93 were heroes. They saw the chance to save life as a gift and gave their own. They gave their family, friends, total strangers -- gave their country what Lincoln called at Gettysburg the last full measure of devotion.