Survival of the Selfless

Who steps forward in times of peril? What drives some to risk everything to save others? Who will be heroes while others stand by? Who won’t help because they view the victims as unworthy of their personal sacrifice? We never truly know these answers until the worst happens but disturbing trends in our discourse continue to appear.

In the 1993 Burundi Civil War, Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse, a Tutsi, was bound and 72 of her Hutu neighbors—whom she had attempted to hide—were murdered in front of her. Spared, she fought for the lives of more than 30 children whom she ultimately saved through unceasing argument, persuasion, and the assistance of others. As the founder of Maison Shalom, a children’s home and support center, she has since saved 30,000 children.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Bill Keegan was the night operations commander for the World Trade Center rescue and recovery teams. In the years that followed, he harnessed the emotional and physical sacrifice made by recovery volunteers into the creation of HEART 9/11 (Healing Emergency Aid Response Team), which deploys teams of responders to sites of disaster like Sandy Hook to provide support to peers who never anticipated that they too would be part of unimaginable wreckage.

Last week, I was honored to attend “Solidarity Beyond Borders: Stepping Up When Others Step Back,” a conversation presented by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, where I heard Maggy and Bill’s moving stories firsthand.

The next morning, I was particularly surprised and disturbed to hear an alternative narrative on the Acela from New York to D.C. As we waited through lengthy delays due to the extreme weather, passengers began chatting. I could not help overhearing a man—a hedge fund manager—insist to his seatmate—a high-ranking military chaplain—that he would never encourage his children to join the military and sacrifice their lives because he felt many Americans were unworthy.

What a sad indictment of our current social and political dynamics. Every day, we see and hear judgment calls about our fellow Americans. Assumptions are made: if someone holds a political stance, religious point of view, or different interpretation as to how to solve a problem, they are no longer worthy of support, services, or respect. Sitting at a policy table in the past, I listened to participants assert that an American company did not deserve the support of the U.S. government because its products were “unhealthy” or “bad.” I’ve known contemporaries who have lost jobs because their takes on policy differed from the company line. I’ve heard board members pay lip service to the need for more diversity of opinion in the boardroom then privately admit that they really do not want to listen to other points of view.

Viewpoints and opinions about what it means to be an American have become defined at a granular level that was never supported by the Founding Fathers who, although deeply divided in their interpretations of governance and religion, devised the First Amendment to support the broadest level of public discourse and debate.

On 9/11, first responders raced into the Twin Towers and climbed the stairs based on their conviction that all Americans deserved their help. There was no litmus test. Every day, in our military, men and women put their lives on the line to preserve our freedoms. They do not alter their resolve because of public opinion polls.

Women like Maggy fight for the reconciliation of victims and killers—in Burundi, the Hutu and Tutsi—despite their seemingly irreconcilable differences. As the world they rebuild is destroyed yet again, these women persist in their efforts, knowing that their resolve is required if they want to see their children survive and then thrive.

Hearing Maggy’s story, I was overwhelmed: Americans are unbelievably fortunate. But when tragedy happens near our homes, our resolve is also required to not sit in judgment but instead reach across the political divide to protect each other and preserve our freedoms.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” — Ronald Reagan

Lisa Gable
About the author: 

Lisa Gable served as Vice Chair of the Defense Advisory Committee of the Services, serving as an advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chief of Staff during the Navy Tailhook sexual harassment scandal.  She recently a Senior Vice President at PepsiCo, responsible for global public policy development.  Ms. Gable has also served as the President at Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, as a Principal with The Brand Group, and at the Ambassador, Advisor and General Commissioner-levels in the United States Department of State and Department of Defense. Lisa has her Master’s Degree from Georgetown University, and she has worked with numerous non-profits and Boards, including her role as a National Trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Follow her on Twitter.