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Hunting for Heros - Peter Funt

America's developing a real thing for heroes -- not the kind in fiction, but the real-life variety.

Oprah does entire shows about them. CNN ranks and profiles them in recurrent specials. President Obama even released a kids' book about his 13 favorite heroes, and recently presented the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first time the award has gone to a living hero since Vietnam.

Several non-profit organizations -- including the Heroic Imagination Project, and the Giraffe Heroes Project -- are dedicated not only to identifying heroes, but also to nurturing new ones. Some experts are convinced that heroism is, at least in part, learned behavior, and they argue that we need more of it.

While we loosely apply the term "hero" to athletes, entertainers and the generally rich and famous, the spotlight is shifting increasingly to ordinary folks. A classic example is the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, who managed to land safely in the Hudson River last year after his US Airways jet hit a flock of birds. He then threw out the first pitch at opening day in San Francisco, served as Grand Marshal at the Rose Parade, made dozens of TV appearances, and was exhaustively covered in a half-dozen books, including his own.

Captain Sully's experience proved he's an extraordinary pilot, but is he a hero? How about Wesley Autrey, the construction worker who jumped onto the tracks to save a young man who had fallen, and became known in the media as New York's Subway Hero? Like Sully, who stayed in the plane assisting passengers until all escaped, Autrey risked injury or death. Was that a heroic act, or an impulsively foolish gambit?

Last week's "CNN Heroes" focused more on life-long pursuits. Among the people featured: a 74-year-old doctor who cares for as many as 900 patients a day in the crime-ridden town of Juarez, Mexico, at the hospital she helped start; a Cambodian man who planted thousands of land mines as a soldier, and now devotes his time to finding and removing them; a builder in Houston, Texas, who constructs mortgage-free houses for military vets.

The Giraffe Heroes Project, whose name relates to sticking one's neck out, has identified roughly 1,000 heroes at www.giraffe.org, such as the cheerleader from Iowa who creates cheering squads around the nation for students with disabilities. There's a Giraffe kit for schools, complete with hero trading cards and videos. The objective is underscored in the organization's slogan: "Encouraging today's heroes; training tomorrow's." But, hold on. Is that really possible?

Philip Zimbardo, the noted Stanford psychology professor and author, believes it is. "Heroism can be learned by example and reinforced with practice," he maintains.

Zimbardo recently launched The Heroic Imagination Project (www.heroicimagination.org). "The definition of a hero that I promote," he told me, "is someone who acts voluntarily on behalf of others in need, or in defense of a moral cause, aware of risks and costs, without expectation of tangible rewards."

Zimbardo (with whom I've worked on unrelated projects), seeks "a growing community of heroes, all empowered to initiate extraordinary social change."

Fundamental in Zimbardo's work is his assertion that risk need not be the major component of heroism. "Nobility of purpose and non-violent acts of personal sacrifice," are keys. Heroes include "those individuals who challenge institutionalized injustice, deception, and fraud."

Left unclear in the hunt for heroes is whether there are more such people today, or if our trying times, combined with a reality-TV mindset, simply make us more determined to find them. Maybe our ever-squabbling politicians, over-indulgent entertainers, and scandal-plagued business leaders have made us look elsewhere for people to admire.

"Heroes are created by popular demand," wrote the journalist Gerald W. Johnson. In these demanding times, we could certainly use a lot more.

This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.