Is the American Hero Dead?

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Army National Guard counter-riot tactics
Soldiers with the Mississippi Army National Guard train with District of Columbia Guardsmen on counter-riot tactics at the Joint Force Headquarters - District of Columbia National Guard, Washington, D.C., June 3, 2020. (U.S. Army National Guard photo/Jovi Prevot)

Daniel Miller is a lawyer, activist and writer in Philadelphia. He is the director of education at the Renew Democracy Initiative, a pro-democracy organization founded in 2017. Edward Radzivilovskiy is a writer and philosopher based in New York and the program associate at the initiative.

As protests and riots shake America and the president threatens violence against his own people, many are left wondering what they can do to heal a broken nation.

The coming anniversary of D-Day only intensifies this feeling. Reflecting on our grandfathers' heroic deeds, we search for ways to rise to a new historic occasion. Enlisting to fight Nazi Germany is not an option. And given the many struggles that America faces, heroism calls for additional means of service outside of defending our nation from foreign threats. How can we be heroes like our grandfathers?

This conundrum isn't merely a function of recent events. We have been paralyzed ever since the 2016 election. A new kind of war has been brewing in our country -- more abstract, perhaps, than one with uniforms, battlefields and clearly identified enemies -- but just as important for the future of our nation.

This war is about civility, honor and truth. The adversary isn't a physical army like the palpable foes of World War II. It's the poison of misinformation, the weapon of propaganda, and the deep wound of apathy itself. Although our conflict has been framed as one side versus another -- and yes, there is something to this -- what we've really been fighting as a country is the gradual degradation of our democratic system, the further polarization of our people, and the onward march of authoritarianism.

The problem is that the way we fight back in this war doesn't feel like a real call to action. It certainly doesn't feel like the heroism of our grandfathers. But perhaps this is precisely what heroism means in today's world. It means being comfortable with the less-than-extraordinary. It means quietly volunteering in your community. It means registering voters in your free time. It means, if you partake in protests, that you do your part to ensure they remain nonviolent and purposeful. And it certainly means voting every two or four years, even if you don't like the candidates on the ballot. Simply put, it means doing your civic duty.

To be sure, what it means to be a good citizen in today's world has been redefined by COVID-19. The everyday choices we make during this crisis have just as much of an effect on the body politic as does showing up at the polls. Washing your hands, wearing a mask, avoiding unnecessary store visits and, above all, staying inside unless duty dictates otherwise -- these are the choices that make our country safe. Performing them, along with the host of other responsibilities of citizenship, and doing so without expecting fanfare or recognition, is part of what makes you a hero in today's America.

Now some, if not most, may object to labeling the ordinary "heroic." Doesn't this formulation ignore the real heroes in America today: the brave men and women on the front lines of the pandemic who have risked their lives to protect us all from this deadly virus? The answer is no. Quite to the contrary, we recognize these acts of heroism as the kind of courage demonstrated by our grandfathers so many years ago, as well the servicemen and women who serve our country today. And we salute them.

But heroism is doing what you can. Some of us are doctors and can do a lot to save the sick. The vast majority of us aren't. But all of us are citizens. And we all have the power to vote, to think critically, and to hold our leaders accountable. We also have the collective power to ensure that the true heroes among us are taken care of when they return from battle or that the frontline health care workers have the personal protective equipment necessary to fight this virus while staying as safe as possible. Performing this act of citizenship is one of our many civic duties that, in total, make us heroic.

Being a citizen in America today isn't easy. It means overcoming the hyper-individualistic, ego-driven culture that prioritizes the individual over the community. It means staying committed to American democracy and doing whatever you can to preserve it, no matter how discouraging our present course might seem. It means having empathy for your fellow Americans, even those you disagree with, even those you know have lost their way. And it means always listening and never insulting. This isn't easy. It's difficult. The day-in, day-out responsibilities of citizenship require the kind of unacknowledged perseverance that is unique to our time. This behavior is not traditionally heroic. But for our time, it is.

The only question is, do we have it in us to be heroes?

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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