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Heroism, patriotism and personal sacrifice have rarely shared the stage as eloquently as when Khizr Khan and his wife recently stood before America and the world at the Democratic Party Convention and gave most of us an unforgettable lesson in all three. That their appearance left Trump and his ilk in its wake was an added bonus.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, we have seen how dignity in the face of loss can cause a self-absorbed bully to first falter and then angrily strike out at whatever convenient “target” crosses his path. Even Trump’s Republican acolytes have been running for cover. Only big rooms filled with small people remain.

Human beings have demonstrated an inordinate capacity to kill and maim each other in the name of clan, country, and faith, so there is likely to be a continued wellspring of violence-driven heroism, patriotism, and sacrifice. Each of us probably would like to believe that if the moment called for it, we could be a hero too. But what is a hero and can you be a hero without acting in the face of personal danger?

How about patriotism? Can you be a patriot if you resist military service or fight to keep your country out of wars? Is the ultimate sacrifice really only the loss of a loved one at war? Is Jonas Salk a hero? Is Martin Luther King a patriot? Did the Sandy Hook parents make the ultimate sacrifice?

This is not the first time that I have pondered these questions, nor is it likely to be the last. I resisted mightily the Vietnam War, and believe to this day that that resistance was an act of patriotism. My actions were not heroic in the least and surely did not require a whole lot of personal sacrifice. In fact, I didn’t want to be a hero.

As a college kid in the 1960’s, supporting the war probably required more personal sacrifice than opposing it. But if you were a student at Kent State University, my version of patriotism and true personal sacrifice merged on one horrific day in May 1970. On that day, armed Ohio National Guardsmen gunned down four student anti-war protesters on a college campus. Innocence died that day.**

The struggle for civil rights in the American South brought its own 1960’s heroes, patriots and stories of tragic personal sacrifice. On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers—a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi, James Chaney, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were brutally murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi.*** Their dead bodies were found weeks later buried in a local earthen dam. All three lives were sacrificed fighting for the basic civil rights of others in a land where “freedom” was then and continues to be a word instead of a reality for far too many.

I reference the Kent State killings and the murders in Mississippi from my generation to illustrate that heroism, patriotism, and personal sacrifice often come without a uniform and often result from misguided and disproportionate reaction to perceived threats from within. Few, if any, choose to be dead heroes or buried patriots, but sometimes the moment intervenes and modest, scared kids answer the call. They all have names, and all should be honored.

When Trump and his ilk declare themselves "heroes" and “patriots,” there ought to be a collective revulsion. When Trump talks of personal sacrifice in terms most familiar to those paying parking tickets and avoiding meat on Fridays, every decent person in this land should understand that heroism, patriotism, and personal sacrifice do not dwell in penthouses. Each dwells instead in the hearts of those who step forward at moments in time to serve others in need.

Heroism can be small, patriotism can be quiet, and personal sacrifice can be modestly deflected, but most of us know it when we see it. And it doesn’t look like Donald Trump.

At the moment, America is crafting its destiny crippled by fear, hate, and prejudice that have been allowed to fester by political dysfunction and willful public ignorance. A nation that confuses so much of its own mythology for historical fact is a nation poised for the ascendancy of a modern day “confederacy of dunces.” [ ]

But it is no longer funny. America desperately needs renewal and re-engagement. The nation must finally confront its racist past and do something about its tragic present. The nation must finally confront its insane level of internal violence and get guns and bullets out of the deadly equation. The nation must end its love affair with killing fields in foreign lands and seek new initiatives that lift up the poor and the sick at home and around the world. This list is short; the full list runs much deeper.

America will need new heroes to even begin to reach these goals. It will need a new sense of patriotism to drive the effort. And it will require enormous personal sacrifice by those on the front lines – teachers, nurses, emt's, civil rights workers, aid workers and students. And finally, it will need enlightened and uncompromised leadership to guide the nation to a new and better tomorrow.

I am not sure where that leadership will come from. But I am sure that it will not come from the country clubs, gated communities, and private privilege where so much potential has been squandered at an altar of individual greed and misguided rancor.

**Kent State Killings Links

***Mississippi Civil Rights Murders Links

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