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Firefighters: America's real-life superheroes

By Beth Nissen

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Firefighters have heroism built into their job description: It takes both courage and strength to battle one of the most dangerous, destructive forces on earth.

"They are heroes because they protect us, you know? They go in where people are in danger, and they save their lives," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.

Yet since September 11, firefighters -- especially New York City firefighters -- have become the subject of a newly pronounced public devotion, reverence, near-worship.

Firefighters are depicted on magazine covers. Firefighter Halloween costumes sold out this year. New York City department stores honor firefighters in window displays.

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"We're just grateful to them in some real and intense way. Here in New York, people, they go up to these guys at the firehouses and in the streets, and they just want to say how grateful they are," Blankenhorn says.

The most vivid single image people have of September 11, other than the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, is of the firefighters going to rescue people as others were trying to get out, Blankenhorn says.

"You know, what these guys do, there's no moral ambiguity to it. They just go in and get the innocent people. They go in and save them -- it's like Superman," he says.

'Everyday people'

That analogy isn't lost on those who create comic book superheroes.

John Romita Jr., who has been drawing Spiderman since 1980, is working on a new comic book issue with Spiderman at Ground Zero, helping firefighters and rescue workers.

"Spiderman is secondary," he says. "The real heroes are the firemen. These people are everyday people doing superhero-like things."

Romita based his sketches on news photographs taken at the World Trade Center after the attacks.

"The photographs I dealt with were all of them doing things heroically -- grabbing people, holding people, leading people away -- in the middle of that heat, the middle of that horror," he says.

"I can't, in my mind, thank them enough, all of them, for what they're doing for me and for my family and everybody in the country," he says.

Sea change from cynicism

This new hero worship is something of a sea change for Americans who have grown increasingly cynical, some social scientists say.

"Up until September 11, we did live in an antiheroic age," Blankenhorn says. "Heroes were there to be debunked, criticized, made human, brought down to earth."

Deconstructionists and revisionists have recast Columbus as a mass murderer and Thomas Jefferson as an adulterous slaveholder, and linked John F. Kennedy's Camelot to the Mafia.

"We've gone from debunking heroes to needing heroes," Blankenhorn says. "We're in a time of such danger and such physical vulnerability, and we need to be protected by the strong and the brave."

And the selfless. Firefighters seem all the more noble because they are motivated by service, not reward. Full-time firefighters are only moderately paid -- and 74 percent of the nation's firefighters are volunteers.

They carry people from fires, pry people from auto accidents, and revive people after heart attacks. They save lives, and sometimes lose their own -- 343 New York City firefighters died September 11.

"We have a need for heroes as a species, you know. That is one of the distinguishing traits of humans. We have a need to have an idealized sense of who we are at our best," Blankenhorn says.

At a time when a nation is challenged to do its best in the face of great uncertainty and unknown risks, firefighters set a standard -- of readiness, response and resolve.


• Fire Department - City of New York
• Institute for American Values

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