I swung by the Pat Tillman makeshift memorial near Sun Devil Stadium on my campus. The hats, footballs, balloons, and hastily crafted signs flapped eerily on an unusually windy day. A passerby drew me into conversation, "It's quite a tribute." Blinded by the Mylar balloons, I didn't quite see it that way. If it hadn't been for the redeeming colonial "Don't tread on me" flag wrapped around a Saguaro cactus, I would have flung the deposited trinkets into the wind as if they were money changers in the temple.
Why does everybody famous get the same treatment upon tragic passing: Care Bears and poster board signs courtesy of Sharpie pens? How dare they treat this man in the same fashion as they did Princess Diana and Versace! Mr. Tillman was head and shoulders above those jet-setters and shallow mavens of design.
This soul of indomitable courage left us, but our memorial is no different from those impromptu ones created for the likes of Kurt Cobain. The media hoopla is the same, for fame is fame, and it sells, regardless of its origins. Worse, the Tillman media coverage minimizes the sacrifice of all those who have given their lives for freedom. Their lack of a pro football career lessens their nobility in this era of reality TV and surreal life. Every man's death diminishes us, but we slight the locals to worship and mourn the famous and infamous.
This business of sobbing for the famous we have never met, from druggies to playboys, has troubled me for a decade. Fans just held a 10-year-memorial service for druggie Cobain. Rapper Tupac Shakur's death got more media coverage than Mother Teresa's. We mark the anniversary of Princess Diana's death. We have candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Elvis's overdose. I blame Don McLean. He lionized Buddy Holly with his tribute "The Day The Music Died." The music world progressed nicely even after Mozart's passing, but it can't continue because the man who wrote the "Peggy Sue" songs died in a plane crash?
With Mr. Tillman's passing, we fall into a trap of placing courage exercised by the rich and famous as more meritorious than the courage of an 18-year-old on the same battlefront who was there with the same burning desire for freedom. All he left behind was a Jeep with bald tires, so, we discount his ultimate sacrifice. This pedestal treatment would be an affront to Mr. Tillman. All men are created equal, especially in death. But, the famous are our family and friends. We mourn vicariously for those we never met.
We miss and dismiss the valor and deeds of the common man. Have the copyright restrictions limiting its airplay taken hold so strongly that no one remembers the moral of "It's A Wonderful Life?" Lives lived the right way, and not necessarily in the spotlight, matter.
We prefer our first-name closeness with the shallow icons of our day. I was in a waiting room this past week when CNN announced that Michael Jackson had fired his legal team and hired fresh bottom-feeders for trial. Two women who shared the waiting room and wait with me, one in gold sandals and Sarasota leather skin, gasped and chatted in great detail about this strategically foolish move. "Mark is just too busy with the Laci trial," she exclaimed. But, her friend, wearing a portrait of a FTD shop on her blouse disagreed, "Yes, but Mark's a likeable lawyer, and Michael needs that."
The conversation smacked of two pontificating great aunts from Long Island, whose advice and experience are often ignored because of their sartorial lapses. These two women, miles from Santa Maria, CA and Neverland, opined as if Michael were their nephew and Mark Geragos, the fired Jackson lawyer, was a neighbor.
Society's deepest feelings are for the famous who enter their homes via cable and satellite. It took me almost one year to understand that when people said that they voted for Ruben that they were not discussing a national Subway sandwich contest. American Idol they were talking about a television show that turns ordinary folks into famous folks, some for their talent, and others for the lack thereof. They are all equal in the eyes of a nation enamored of fame. Idol worship could Moses have been a network visionary?
Which brings me to Barbara Walters and the on-camera adoption of a child. Walters has allowed a teen mother to use national, prime-time TV to auction off a child to 5 desperate couples. People magazine, Oprah, et al. will note mom's courage and cover her life and the child's. Dignity, where art thou? The era when out-of-wedlock mothers had the decency to be discreet and lived out trimesters 2 and 3 with aunts in Long Island looks good.
Mr. Tillman's life and lessons are many, but we're missing the most important: discretion is the greater part of valor. Mr. Tillman resisted media coverage because he understood that fame is irrelevant. His sacrifice was a testament to his belief that principled lives, not pro sports contracts, matter. Sacrifices for freedom are created equal. All of our brave soldiers, from Long Island to Sarasota, from 18-year-old dropout to college graduate linebacker, are equal. Mourn accordingly, and, use some discretion on the passing of the infamous.
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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State
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