If we can't all be Pat Tillmans, we can at least make sure we don't forget him. In a perfect world, men like Pat Tillman would never die. They would live forever as symbols of sacrifice and profiles in courage.
In the world G-d originally intended, a man who stuns the nation by giving up a $3 million football contract to join the military after 9/11 would be rewarded with long life, health, and happiness. When he died, he would be at home, surrounded by grandchildren and great grandchildren rather than in a forlorn desert at the hands of ruthless killers in Afghanistan. But our military is in the Middle East because we donít live in a perfect world. Rather, we live in a world where innocent children die of cancer while bullets find the Pat Tillmans of this world, a world where some countries are blessed with oil while others, peace-loving and poor, suffer without natural resources. Stories of bloodshed and genocide stretch from the earliest histories of mankind, from Cain and Abel to Saddamís anonymous mass graves, from the Holocaust, which we commemorated last Sunday, to the genocide in Rwanda where ten years ago this month, 800,000 innocent, poor, black men, women, and children were slaughtered in under a hundred days. The world was mostly silent during those massacres, as silent as G-d himself. People did nearly nothing to save them--not because they dislike blacks and Jews but because they love themselves. The history of the world is a tale of selfishness and self-absorption. If someone is suffering on the other side of the world, what does it have to do with me? Only a small minority of people have taken to heart the principal religious message which says that every human being is G-dís child and that every human life--not just one's own--is of infinite value.
Those few who do stand up and risk their own lives to protect those of others are what we call heroes. They are radically different from the false heroes. The heroes who play for fame and glory are more interested in adventure than service. They are distinguished by the rewards they receive rather than the sacrifices they make. Real heroes like Pat Tillman are rarely remembered because their heroism doesn't drive the hordes wild. They donít make the winning jump shot in the playoffs in front of a capacity crowd. They donít gyrate their backsides for packed stadiums. Their heroism is designed not to entertain, but to protect their fellow citizens. Real heroes like Pat Tillman are animated not by the kind of insecurity that forces them to hog the spotlight. Animated instead by the courage of their convictions, they are strong enough to walk away, into the anonymity of a desert where the fight for freedom is going on. They take off the pads that make them look muscular in exchange for a bulletproof vest. They swap colorful jerseys with their names in bold letters on the back for a dusty, beige uniform that makes them look like a hundred thousand others. They trade the roar of the crowd for the roar of cannons. Why would a man exchange an expensive home for a tent? What would motivate him to give up popping running backs to dodge bullets? The actions of the hero always transcend selfish human calculation. The hero is the man or woman who cannot help but respond to a calling.
Pat Tillman decided that his life would be spent protecting the freedom of others even if no cameras would record his sacrifice, no hall of fame would honor his service, no equestrian statues be erected to his glorification, and no movie would ever be made by which he would be remembered. There are two kinds of people who witness an event like September 11, 2001. One kind--the vast majority of us--watch it on TV, feel remorse for the innocent lives that were lost, and then retire to our comfortable beds, thankful to G-d that it wasnít us. And then there are the select few whose conscience will not let them sleep comfortably at night. They make a radical change, give up the material comforts America is famous for to answer freedomís call, avenge the lives of those who were lost, and grant liberty to the millions who live under the sledgehammer of a tyrant. Few of us will ever rise to be a Pat Tillman. After reading these words, you will likely sigh at his loss and move on to read other news of the day, just as I will go on to other pursuits when I finish writing them. The rest of us can at least stand in awe of a giant and feel shaken to our core by the injustice of his loss. While we may not run to Iraq to replace him, we can honor the soldiers that will. While we may not completely emulate him, we can at least be inspired by him. At the very least, let us promise we will never forget him.