This is a bit of an odd post, but was the best way I could think of discussing the subject. A bit of background first. Last week Police sergeant Ryan Russell, was struck and killed by a (deranged) man who had stolen a snow plow. The public outpouring of grief from my city; from politician to plebeian, radio host to new anchor, journalist to blogger. There was a two day visitation, during which hundreds of people lined up outside the funeral home to offer their condolences. Today was the funeral, a procession of around 8000 police officers from Toronto, around the GTA and even from the US marched down a major thoroughfare, itself lined with somber faced civilians, to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The funeral service was held in the MTCC, and by the time the service began, some 14 000 people had come out. Many dignitaries associated with the Police, a former Chief turned MP (who had sworn the fallen officer into the service), Current Chief Bill Blair, among them, gave eulogies and sympathies for the family, both personal and professional. The service was long, punctuated with music and speeches, but the solemnity of the day was not lost on anyone. The final farewell for a hero, who had, as his wife so eloquently spoke, “Ryan put others before himself. On Jan. 12, this cost him his life.”
Such an event is very rare, this being the first fatality involving an on duty Police officer in almost a decade. Very public, and generally widely supported. Of course there are a few voices of dissent, that the entire thing was "over the top", or a "PR campaign to boost the image of Metro Cops", who admittedly have been under a good deal of public scrutiny surrounding the events during the G20 conference in June 2010. Despite this sort of cynicism, however, I believe that this is a striking example of what I would call "civic religion".
One may observe "civic religion" in many of the events which seem to permeate a give community, though more often than not, it is at its finest when giving reverence for the dead. There is a sacredness associated with those who have died in the service of community, of province and of country. In the case of the war dead, it has been formalized for almost a century. Even now, a significant portion of the main artery of southern Ontario, the 401, has been dedicated as the "highway of heroes" and all of the men and women who have been killed in Afghanistan, have made their way down this stretch of highway. People still line up on over-passes waving flags or saluting, motorists will pull over to the side of the road to allow the motorcades transporting the fallen, to pass.
The word "hero" is almost always used by those who wish to honour the life and sacrifice of those who are willing to, and have, given their lives in service to others. Yet this cynicism remains, "the only reason he's a 'hero' is because he was killed" or similar sentiments may accompany discussion, some times in hushed tones, sometimes in screaming derision. The very word "hero", itself derived from the Greek hērōs, itself (likely) derived from the Proto-Indo-European *ser (to watch over, protect) entails those who are charged, by community and state with protecting those who can not. In the tales, we see this time and time again, the function of a hero above all else, is the defense of his kith and kin. I think the people who see things so cynically, have a very deep misunderstanding of what "heroic" means, of the value of a life in general, and more so for the life of a person who was willing to live in service to others. It is because of the way they lived their lives, and not simply the manner of their death, that makes someone a hero, and thus worthy of respect, if not reverence.
My heart goes out to the family of Sgt. Russell, and may he be warmly welcomed in the halls of his ancestors.