Too many heroes

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that your dad was so angry with the government that he flew a single-engine plane into an office building, killing himself and one other person and injuring 12 others. Let’s just say you lived in a foreign country far away from the scene of the crime and agreed (maybe because you were exhausted; maybe because there was catharsis in speaking publicly) to submit to a phone interview for a major U.S. morning news and entertainment program.

Let’s say you didn’t make a whole lot of sense in this interview. Let’s say that amid the dual shock of learning that your father committed an act of domestic terrorism and is also dead, you find yourself doing what a lot of children (grown-up or otherwise) do when their parents (unhinged or otherwise) come under attack: You defend him. Not unequivocally or anything: His “last actions, the suicide, the catastrophe,” you emphasize, “were wrong.” But when the interviewer asks if you consider your father a “hero for standing up to the system,” you say “yes.”

Such was the course of events this week for Samantha Bell, the 38-year-old daughter of Joseph Stack, who, on Feb. 18, after setting his own house ablaze, flew into an Austin, Texas, building that housed IRS offices. In a suicide manifesto posted online, Stack lamented his long-standing tax troubles and inveighed against what he perceived as taxation without representation by a corrupt system.

His wife had the presence of mind to say, through a spokesperson, little more than that she had “sincerest sympathies” for the victims. Bell, who lives in Norway, proved less media savvy and went on to pay a big price. Within moments of the airing of her Monday phone interview on “Good Morning America,” a mostly content-free segment in which family photos flashed across the screen while Bell rambled rather incoherently about how “if nobody comes out and speaks up on behalf of injustice, then nothing will ever be accomplished,” Twitter and the blogosphere practically exploded with venom.

It wasn’t so much her filial defense that tweaked the public’s ire. It was that claim: hero. By Monday afternoon, Bell had retracted her statement, but the damage was done. Bloggers excoriated her knee-jerk defense of her dad, and commenters tarred her with vicious epithets.

(Meanwhile, no one seems to have remarked on the fact that Bell, at 38, is a mere 15 years younger than her 53-year-old father; hello! Can we discuss? But I digress.)

Here’s what I want to know: Does any word -- other than, perhaps, “patriot” or, depending on what circles you run in, “genius” -- get misused and misappropriated with more abandon than “hero”? A staple of pop songs and political speeches alike, the concept of heroism no longer refers exclusively to superhuman strength or courage, or even to someone who sacrifices his own safety or interests for the benefit of others. In fact, the only requirement for the role these days is not to be a monster -- and even then you never know.

That’s because we love to pay lip-service to “ordinary” heroes (working folks pulling double shifts to make ends meet, people who volunteer and, of course, moms everywhere), and we tend

to slap the hero label on just

about anyone who’s made lots of money or become famous, even if they’ve done so by less than noble means.

For every traditional (some might say genuine) hero out there (Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, for instance), there’s someone who has been handed the mantle for little reason other than that they happen to do something really well (like, I dare say, Tiger Woods). For every Martin Luther King Jr. there is, well . . . anyone who’s ever

received, deservedly or not, a “world’s greatest dad” statuette.

So maybe it’s time we ease up on Samantha Bell. Sure, her words were unfortunate, even offensive. But it’s worth noting that it was the “Good Morning America” interviewer, not Bell, who uttered the word “hero.”

Meanwhile, there’s a reason Stephen Colbert addresses his audience as “heroes.” Because almost everyone out there, even Joseph Stack, is someone’s mom or dad. Either that, or he’s angling for a job on “Good Morning America.”