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On Heroes, Heroism, and Julie Hiatt Steele
April 9, 2002
By Robert C.

Much has been written about heroes and heroism in the wake of 9/11. Certainly, the men and women who rushed into the Towers that day, and who perished when the Towers collapsed, are, in my mind, heroes of the highest magnitude. Yet, those who were there and survived, shrug off the label, saying that they were only "doing their job", seeming to reserve that title only to those who were lost while doing the same job.

Thinking about this - how to define heroism, what acts are heroic - made me remember an incident that happened to me a long time ago, an incident that I hadn't thought about in years, an incident that happened to a person who had a heck of a lot more hair than I do now.

It was the early '70s, Nixon was still the President, and I was living in The Bronx, in NYC, in a "changing" neighborhood, within walking distance of Yankee Stadium. I was a musician trying to "make it", which meant that in order to survive I drove a yellow taxi several nights a week in Manhattan.

On this one night I was lying in bed reading, trying to unwind after a shift that usually ended around 1 AM. It was somewhere after 2 AM when I noticed an odd light flickering off the buildings across the courtyard from my bedroom window. I opened the window and looked up to see flames and smoke flying out of a window almost directly 2 floors above me.

What happened next happened without any conscious or deliberative thought from me - in fact, I was in a state of hyper-consciousness. Understanding the situation was immediate and total, reaction to it was automatic. I was in an unusually calm and lucid frame of mind, and I knew exactly what I had to do. I woke my girlfriend and calmly explained the situation. She was to call the Fire Dept., pack up my guitars and a change of clothes or two for both of us, and whatever little money we had lying around - I knew we weren't going to be sleeping here tonight, or any time soon.

Then I said to put the guitar amp on the couch, and cover it with raincoats, open umbrellas, whatever - and to put anything else of value on the couch, or chairs, or the milk cartons that constituted the rest of our furniture, as I knew that hundreds of gallons of water would soon be pouring through the ceiling and down the walls. I didn't question how I knew this - I had never been in a building that was on fire, and I never knew anyone who had - I just knew!

I grabbed a coat (it was a cold winter night) and my keys, and told her that I was going upstairs to wake up the people in the floors above us - most people were still probably asleep, and unaware of the fire. I told her to wait for me as long as she could, but that she should leave as soon as she started to see smoke in the hallway. And make sure to lock the door if you go - I was thinking about vandalism, and if the Firemen needed to get in, well they had axes, didn't they?

I kissed her, and was gratified to see that she was operating from the same calm and focused place that I was. I ran to the top floor, and saw black smoke billowing out from under the door of what I now realized was THE empty apartment on the 5th floor. So the fire was started by a vandal, or some junkie who nodded out while smoking - this last thought eventually was the conclusion of the official report. In any case, there was no reason to deal with that apartment - whoever started the fire was either gone - the vandal, or dead - the nodded out junkie.

I started banging on apartment doors, and screaming "Fire!" as loud as I could. By the time I got everyone to open their doors, the smoke was filling the hallway - no explanation was needed. I ran down to the 4th floor and my legs gave out - I collapsed on the landing realizing that I had inhaled far too much smoke. I hoped that everyone on the 5th floor got out safely, but I wasn't going back up. (They all did.) I repeated the routine, banging on doors and screaming, until I got all doors to open - again, no explanations necessary, as the smoke was building up on this floor too.

When I got back to my apartment, my girlfriend was just about finished getting my record collection onto "higher ground" - that is, off the floor where several inches of water would soon be standing. The smell of smoke was now strong on the 3rd floor, and I knew it was time to leave. I looked at my extensive collection of R. Crumb Comic books - a collection that would now be worth a pretty penny - but there wasn't time. (The records survive to this day, the Comics, alas, did not.)

We locked the door, and went down the stairs. When we got to the 2nd floor, we were met with Firemen running up the stairs, dragging the hoses along with them. As welcome a site as you would want to see under the circumstances. I distinctly remember thinking, "We're running away from the fire, and they're going up to meet it."

The tenants of the building eventually had one last good-bye, and legal strategy, meeting in a neighbor's almost intact 1st floor apartment - the building was eventually torn down. We all signed on to sue the landlord for not adequately securing the empty apartment, and talked about the "fire", our lives, and the future.

Several people at that meeting suggested that what I did that night was brave, but I couldn't, and still don't, agree. I argued that I simply did what had to be done, that I didn't think about it, and I thought that any of them, in the same circumstances, would have done the same thing. And I still think that is true.

You see, to me the real act of bravery, of heroism, is the conscious, deliberate decision to embark on a course of action that carries a significant risk of physical to oneself in doing so, and deciding to take that risk. So what of the Firemen who were rushing up the stairs to meet the fire as we were rushing away from it?

They would most likely tell you that they were just doing their job - but there is the difference. They deliberately chose to do the job. They are fully aware that each time they enter a burning building, that things could go horribly, and tragically wrong. When they visit an injured colleague in the hospital, or attend a funeral for one of their fallen brethren, they are reminded anew that the next time it could be them. And yet they continue to run into burning buildings, just doing their job.

That, to me is bravery - those people are heroes. What I did, and what thousands of other people do daily - that kind of instinctual action to help others, while noble in its own right - and representative of the basic goodness of human nature - is no way on a par with those who put themselves in harm's way on a daily basis, to protect their fellow citizens.

But there is another kind of bravery, another kind of hero - and that is one who consciously and deliberately puts themselves at risk to defend an abstraction - the truth, or justice, or liberty, or freedom. While the instinct to risk one's own safety for the benefit of other human beings seems to be hard wired into our genes, risking one's safety for a principle is harder to understand, but it is no less noble and fully worthy of our admiration.

And that brings me to Julie Hiatt Steele. Since I am sure that most who are reading this are familiar with at least the outlines of Ms. Steele's story, I won't repeat it here. The question that I have, is what made this seemingly ordinary middle class woman, inadvertently caught up in the Grand Inquisition of President William Jefferson Clinton - a man she neither knew, nor voted for - decide to resist the all powerful OIC for an abstraction called the truth, knowing full well the harm that might certainly befall her for doing so.

And know full well she did. The psychological torture that the OIC used, insured that Ms. Steele had plenty of time to ponder her fate should she not bend the truth to support the special prosecutors version.

And she must have had the images of Susan McDonald in her mind - paraded in front of the TV cameras in orange prison garb and chains, an example for all to see what awaits those who dare challenge the Inquisitors. They went as far as to hint that her adopted son could be removed from her - striking at the most basic and sacred bond that an adult human being can make with a child - Family Values, indeed.

And yet she resisted - why? Ms. Steele is an educated woman, surely she must know that history is littered with tragic footnotes of innocent people whose lives were trampled upon by over zealous and ambitious members of the government, any government. Surely she knew that some of the best literature speaks to these very same issues - and while it is one thing to cry over the noble, and ultimately futile, heroism of a fictional character, it is a whole other thing to cast yourself willingly into that real life role for yourself. She didn't know Clinton, and she owed him nothing - why not give them what they want?

She must have seen that his pursuers would stop at nothing, that they would continue on their "sacred" mission, even if this current line of attack was thwarted, and if they could bring him down, then no one would dare take up her cause, since she had obviously "lied" to save a "criminal". How much easier to just endorse their version of the "truth", and to get on with her life? Let the big boys make thunder, and hurl lightening bolts at each other overhead - what does that have to do with me?

But she didn't take the easy way out, and for that she has paid dearly. Although she can hold her head high on principal - having been acquitted and exonerated by the "Final Report", although you wouldn't know that from our "liberal media" - she has paid a heavy price for standing up for an abstraction. Yet, like those who risk their well being for something concrete - a human life - Julie shrugs off her bravery, saying I just did what I thought was right - saying, in essence, I was just doing my job. So, it seems that modesty is also a virtue of those who do brave and heroic deeds. Certainly, self-aggrandizement is not very compatible with such selfless behavior.

I am in no way qualified to speculate on what motivates one to become a Fireman, or a Policeman (or a Teacher for that matter), but lord knows, it isn't the pay. As for my my antics so many years ago, it was really quite simple when I thought about it - these were my neighbors, I saw them almost daily, and I would not have been able to live with myself if I had heard that someone on the upper floors had died while asleep that night, and I hadn't at least tried to warn them.

As for Julie Hiatt Steele, she seems to one of those remarkable people whose sense of self, and strength of character, is so strong, that they would not be able to live with themselves if they betrayed their core principals. Neither fame, nor fortune, nor threats, nor fear, can deflect their moral compass - self betrayal is not an option. History records and remembers the names of many who have exhibited this trait, simply because it is so rare and exceptional. We praise this trait, and extol it to our children, because it is admirable and something to aspire to.

I'm kind of glad that when push came to shove, on a cold winter night 30 years ago, I was able to do the right thing. Would I be able to act the same way today? I'd like to think so, even though I'm older and slower, but since I'm not likely to live where junkies can nod out in empty apartments, it's doubtful that I'll be tested like this again. But I can tell you that I am not brave enough, neither then nor now, to become a Fireman.

And what about Julie Hiatt Steele's bravery, would I be able to rise to that standard? Again, I would like to think so - wouldn't we all like to image ourselves being that valiant? But the disquieting and absolutely frightening reality is, that as America endures the 15th month under rule by judicial coup - as we watch our Constitutional protections erode, indeed, as we watch the Constitution itself being dismantled - it is possible that many of us may find out soon enough if we possess even a small amount of the fierce passion for Truth and Justice that Julie Hiatt Steele has displayed in abundance.

That is why I am going to James Carville's restaurant on April 27th - to see for myself what a true hero looks like - to feel her aura, so to speak, and to see if I measure up - and to shake her hand, maybe some of it will rub off.

Robert C. will be attending a fundraiser for Julie Hiatt Steele, sponsored by Bartcop, at James Carville's restaurant in DC, on 4/27/02. He hopes to meet some other DU'ers there.

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