The Soapbox: The Aurora Shooting & The Myth Of Men’s Obligation To Be Heroes

In the days, weeks and months following a national tragedy, myths settle into our national consciousness. Myths are not falsehoods, per se. Rather, myths are the stories that we repeat to explain a complex and unnerving topic and make sense of the confusion — to label something “good” and “evil,” to finger the “bad guy” and the “hero.” A story coming out of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting — which I have heard again and again these past few days — is of the three boyfriends who saved the lives of their girlfriends by throwing themselves in the line of fire during the “Dark Knight Rises” shooting.

Matt McQuinn, 27, Jonathan Blunk (above), 26, and Alex Teves, 24, were all killed by gunman James Holmes while trying to protect their dates. According to The New York Post — admittedly not the most reliable news source — McQuinn “dived” in front of his girlfriend. Blunk “threw his date … to the floor, pushing her under the seat.” And Teves “used his body” to shield his girlfriend. Teves’ grandmother Rae Iacovelli said her grandson “got down on the floor and covered [his girlfriend] up.” Blunk’s date told “The Today Show” herself that “he took a bullet for me” and his ex-wife even weighed in to say Blunk “wanted to die a hero.”  

First, let me state up front that I’m aware that this is a sensitive topic. Twelve people died, nearly 60 were hurt, and hundreds of loved ones’ are grieving. I can’t even begin to imagine what might be going through their heads. My thoughts on this subject of heroism in the wake of the Aurora shooting are not intended to disrespect anyone’s memory or legacy.

Three men died on Friday; their girlfriends did not die. It seems, from the stories we’re hearing from their loved ones, that they sacrificed their lives to save someone else.  Their sacrifices are more touching, in fact, given the split-second nature of these men’s reactions. A soldier going off to combat has reason to anticipate they might have a reason to risk their lives. Not so for a young couple off for a night at the movies.

I can respect and be touched by these men’s sacrifices. But I’m also wary of some byproducts of the heroism myth, the idea that a few good men will have courage under fire and put “women and children first.” The Post crowed over these men’s “old-fashioned chivalry,” which are funny words to use, when you get right down to it. Why does masculinity have to have anything to do with heroic behavior? Their sacrifice was noble, sure. But in every telling of the “boyfriends risked their lives” story — and every boyfriend who then tells his girlfriend, “Sweetie, I would have done the same for you!” —  there’s an implication that heroism is a gendered concept.

Heroism has never had a gender: just tell that to Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, or any of the female soldiers who risk their lives daily in our military. But the “white knight in shining armor” narrative is gendered.  And it keeps being repeated because it’s a feel-good story — when we desperately need one in the wake of a national tragedy — and it’s a familiar, comforting story. Our lives revolve around stories, especially ones we know (myths) which help us make sense of the senseless; we would all like to think there is some order in the universe.

The fact is the universe feels more orderly when we have expectations of how men will act, how our white knight will come parading in. With the Aurora shooting, we have stories directly from the survivors of the heroism of these men. But in the case of other national tragedies, sometimes the tale of heroism is more or less assigned. Remember, for instance, the stories about Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the young white female soldier in Iraq whose life was allegedly “saved” by a her fellow soldiers. That turned out to be not quite true. And then there are the “Let’s roll!” guys on one of the 9/11 flights, who tried to fight back against terrorists highjacking Flight 93. The men may well have diverted the flight and succeeded in crashing the  plane in a Pennsylvania field, sparing more lives than had it hit its intended target in a major city. But the fact is that none of us were there. We truly don’t know what happened. We just know it feels good to have heroes and it feels good to sit down on an airplane and think, “Maybe there is someone like Todd Beamer on this flight.” There is an emotional reason we cling to these myths.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days, too, about Jamie Rohrs, who left his child and girlfriend behind in the theater, got into his car, and drove away. He’s been getting a lot of flack for not behaving in the most noble of ways. Who knows how any of us would have reacted in that scenario? I would like to think that I would not have behaved as he did. And yet I feel bad for him too — he did, in my opinion, the wrong thing by leaving his loved ones behind in the theater and driving off. But there shouldn’t have to be this added burden of scorn on him because he acted “like a pussy,” as I’ve heard him called. He’s a human. He freaked out.  That’s real life — not the perpetuation of a myth.

Matt McQuinn, Jonathan Blunk, and Alex Teves may well be true heroes who flung themselves in front of their girlfriends’ to save their lives. That’s beyond noble; it is the greatest sacrifice.  But when we congratulate these individuals for their sacrifice, let’s congratulate them for being heroic people — not just heroic men.