I first wrote this post in 2006 as part of the 2996 project. I now re-post it every year, with slight alterations to update it because I’ve conceived a very strong affection for this good and honorable man.
Lt. Brian G. Ahearn
My son, when he was ten, was obsessed with superheroes. One of his favorites was Superman. After all, when you’re a little boy, battling your way through the world, what could be more exciting than the possibility of being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
For months, I was bombarded daily with questions about Superman’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures, his flying speeds, his ballistic capabilities and, most importantly, his bravery. It was with this last that my son and I ran into a conceptual problem.
My son thought Superman was brave because he unflinchingly waded into situations involving guns, and flames, and bad guys. What I tried to explain to him is that the fictional Superman, while good, is not brave. He’s good because he’s committed to fighting evil; he’s not brave because, being super, he takes no risks (and no, we won’t go into the small risk that some evil genius bad guy managed to get hold of kryptonite).
Superman’s indestructibility means that his heart never speeds up, his gut never clenches, and he never pauses for even a moment to question whether the potential benefit from acting is worth the risk. In other words, if facing a gun is as easy as sniffing a rose, there is no bravery involved.
The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle, or to remedy an intolerable situation. The attacks against America on September 11, 2001, revealed the true superheroes among us — those New York firefighters who pushed themselves past those second thoughts, those all-too-human hesitations, and sacrificed themselves in the hopes of saving others. Lt. Brian G. Ahearn was one of those superheroes.