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Superheroes, Symbols and the Real World

Hero flicks give us stability. They make us feel like there are still simple truths out there. There’s something so clear and uncomplicated about this modern mythology. Good guys win and bad guys face justice. More importantly, the outfits make it easy to tell just who the good guys and bad guys are. Though “justice” may mean different things to different people here in the real world, it’s something we all want. People want to know there is some fairness in life. We all desperately want something we can rely on and actually believe in, something we can count on to be true.

In the mid-1900s, an American professor named Joseph Campbell wrote a lot of books with titles like The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He talked about common themes and characters that seem to run through our collective unconscious. George Lucas drew upon Campbell’s ideas when he created the incredibly successful Star Wars universe. Campbell might point out that I’m overlooking these things in my assertion, but there is obviously something specific to the times we’re living in that make these flicks such a draw. It’s more than just great special effects and compelling storylines. It’s also more than just the very convincing concepts Campbell developed.

We live in trying times. People are looking for heroes. They’re looking for something to believe in, and these particular movie themes hit home. But here’s the reality: Superman isn’t coming. There is no Captain America, and there probably won’t ever be. When the 9-1-1 line rings because someone’s world falls apart, they get a cop. Cops don’t have capes and they can’t fly. Those of us with any time on the job at all probably wouldn’t look good in tights either. Some have problems at home or various medical issues. Like the person they’re sent to help, police officers have shortcomings and weaknesses. Yet, there we are. On the worst day of someone’s life, it’s usually a cop who shows up to help them through it.

Wearing a badge doesn’t make someone a hero by default any more than wearing a star automatically makes one a good leader. Yet few professionals are in a better position to change people’s worlds than cops. On the worst days of people’s lives, an officer gets dispatched to help them. The way that officer conducts themselves has a profound impact. It may be the difference between a life lived henceforth in fear, or a renewed belief in things like hope and justice. It’s not just about rescuing the innocent or catching the bad guy, either. Sure, a cop who stops an active shooter certainly fills that much-needed “hero role” in our society. People need to know that there are men and women in uniform who are ready to give their life in defense of others. Ironically, though, the public seems to simply expect that of cops nowadays. When a cop rushes past fleeing citizens to shoot it out with a madman, the public’s praise is short-lived. When an officer acts like a regular human being during these circumstances (they don’t rush in), they’re condemned eternally.

What society doesn’t expect, however, is for an officer to go above and beyond to walk them through a problem that that officer has already dealt with a thousand times. They don’t expect for the officer to sympathize with their situation, to do everything possible to right the wrong that’s been done to them or to act in a way that acknowledges the importance of that particular situation to them. They don’t expect an officer to take the extra time to comfort a child or to call back and check up on a victim. It’s all too easy for officers to unwittingly insulate themselves from the pain they deal with on a daily basis. This is often accomplished by unknowingly keeping a healthy distance from victims, by psychologically viewing them as a number or a statistic. When an officer chooses to leave that comfort zone, put themselves in the victim’s shoes and treat them the way they’d want to be treated, it has a powerful effect on that person and their future view of the world.

It would be remiss to not address the very obvious fact that portions of our society consider cops anything but heroes. To hear the vocal rhetoric from some camps, you’d swear that the cops who respond when the real-world “Bat phone” rings are the actual villains of the tale. Many of these same critics don’t hesitate to call for law enforcement to protect them when they find themselves in danger. But even in these admittedly ironic situations, there is opportunity for progress. It’s easy for a critic to condemn some officer, agency or profession in a faraway town. But an individual cop who pours their all into helping a victim who hates law enforcement can make even the strongest skeptic question their views.

In these trying times, society needs something to believe in. It would be nice for some superhuman being to show up and start solving the very difficult problems we’re facing. But that’s not going to happen. When someone needs help during their darkest hour, it’s usually a cop who shows up. That presents the profession with the most daunting of challenges. Law enforcement officers are often villainized for being unable to solve unsolvable problems. But it also presents enormous opportunities. People need something to believe in. Every single call an officer goes on is an opportunity to be a symbol of stability, truth and, ultimately, hope. In the real world, that’s our job.

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