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Heroism or thoughtlessness?

Huzaima Bukhari

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost”―Arthur Ashe

Starting on a lighter tone with a famous joke, when a person jumped off a passenger liner to save another man from drowning as he accidentally fell in the ocean, he was applauded by all the onlookers for his bravery and heroism but instead of enjoying the limelight, the rescuer turned towards the crowd angrily demanding as to who pushed him overboard. The act, though noble in practicality was not done with the same intent which draws our attention to the actual feats of heroism performed either consciously or spontaneously in everyday life. 

Heroes are idealized, respected, admired and at times even awarded. People give them standing ovation and enviously eye their achievement. Undoubtedly they deserve all the kudos because they probably did what others were reluctant from doing or they happened to be at the right time, at the right place when a certain event occurred, leading to their exaltation. In childhood many of us have read stories of heroism, watched animated films about superman, fantastic four, captain planet, spiderman etc., thoroughly enjoyed television series of The Saint, Persuaders and movies like James Bond that captivated our imagination with adventures and exploits, we could never think of attempting yet the inert desire to be acclaimed like them remains at the back of our minds.

We are made to believe that heroism is the spark of life and we must aspire to do something which will keep our names eternally alive. Of course this possibility is one in a million yet the hope stays as long as we live. ‘Heroism’ has been defined in a number of ways by researchers and psychologists and according to Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals, heroes are perceived to be endowed with all or some of such characteristics as being “smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable and inspiring.”

Many think that the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need or in defending a moral cause despite knowing about personal risk and obviously without expecting a reward. Frank Farley, a psychologist, creates a distinction in heroism between “big H” and “small H” wherein the former involves a potentially greater risk as losing property, being injured, or even death while the latter is related to everyday life as being kind, supporting a needy, giving a shoulder to a disturbed or merely helping someone out; things that do not involve personal risk.

Similarly, there are certain professions, like the military, firefighters and police that demand tasks of sacrificial nature. Persons belonging to these professions have accepted martyrdom in the line of duty, were given gallantry awards and the survivors, decorated with medals for displaying acts of valour. All very well and befitting their status as saviors but certain issues could be handled in a much better manner that can avoid loss of precious lives, especially that of the professionals. There can be no two opinions about the importance of living human beings, especially in the eyes of their family and loved ones. As Sheryl Sandberg puts it: “When you suffer a tragedy, the secondary loss of having it bleed into other areas of your life is so real.”  

Undoubtedly, loss of people has deep rooted effects on those who are closely connected or dependent upon them. In fact, there is a complete turnaround for many from bad to worse and it subsequently takes ages to restore earlier conditions and heal invisible wounds.

People applaud, government rewards, media gives full coverage and the deceased’s family is granted a paltry sum to compensate the loss of their relative. It hardly takes long before the sands of time cover the heroes’ persona and the temporary fame also vanishes in thin air leaving permanent deep scars which are left as hideous reminder of their foolhardiness on the hearts of their immediate family.

With this in mind, persons belonging to essential services should be taught lessons in prudence so as to desist from unnecessary heroism only for the sake of grasping public attention or securing some award. A good example would be that of Customs officers or border security personnel. In order to catch smugglers they sometimes risk their lives and in doing so they forget the difference between the value of their own lives vis-à-vis the contraband/smuggled goods they want to seize and the criminals they are desirous of apprehending. This is most pertinent today, particularly when the world has achieved high technological advancements that can easily be employed to achieve the objective of reducing criminal activities.

Another relevant example is that of our motorway police patrolling the highways to check traffic violations in addition to maintaining law and order. It must be remembered that on these roads vehicles are moving at great speeds and the way driving licences are doled out, motorists are not all expert drivers who tend to overtake from either sides on a three-lane M2 for example. To make matters more perilous, those in charge of nabbing over-speeding vehicles suddenly emerge in the middle of the road amid fast moving cars, feverishly waving for the violator to stop for imposition of penalty. God forbid, if someone loses control or panics on being confronted and runs over the policeman, anything disastrous can happen. Such a probability can be avoided by using a safer way to indicate a car to stop, like a flashing signboard displaying the registration number rather than jeopardizing the life of a human or rounding up the delinquents as they approach an exit point.

Same is the case of law enforcement officials, better known as police. They are most vulnerable, especially when performing their duty on check-posts. Amazingly, in today’s modern world, traditional and outdated methods are still in vogue making humans susceptible to gunshots or as has been happening before, suicide bombers. One fails to understand why GPS system which is widely in use around the world for tracking culprits cannot be used in Pakistan. It would not only prevent loss of many innocent lives but would also free the roads from obstacles installed in the most awkward fashion to slow down traffic and cause jams more so during peak hours. Despite living in modern times, we are still way behind in availing new and scientific mechanisms to manage our affairs. Or are we still fancying heroism, waiting for someone to lose his/her life to etch out another tale to be narrated and idealized?

Moral of the story is that lives are to be cherished as against things because we are not living in isolation. Every person has a cluster of other human beings around him/her who are closely associated in different kinds of relationships which may be indispensable. All out efforts must be made to improve surveillance, counter crimes and catch offenders with technology rather than using human shields for these purposes.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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