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Home of the Brave?

Fr. Joseph K. Horn
14 April 1996
St Barbara’s Parish
Santa Ana, California

Poor little Jessica. She wanted to be the youngest person ever to pilot a plane across the country. And last week she crashed and died. And everybody has an opinion about it. Forgive me, but so do I.

Our country’s national anthem says that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. Why then are all the news commentators, from liberal to conservative, from Dan Rather to Rush Limbaugh, and everybody in between, all unanimously criticizing little Jessica’s parents for encouraging her to learn how to fly an airplane at the tender age of 7? It seems to me that what she was attempting to do was brave, but I guess bravery isn’t a virtue any more in this home of the brave.

Okay, I must admit that Jessica’s parents did seem a bit quirky. Yes, they did have some strange ideas about raising children. Yes, they did make the ultimately fatal decision to fly in an overloaded small plane from a high-altitude airport in the rain. Yes, that decision killed little Jessica, and her father, and her flight instructor.

But what galls me is that everybody is saying that the FAA ought to restrict the age of people who can take flying lessons. They are saying that it’s dangerous, and so the government ought to restrict it.

Oh, sure. Land of the free? Home of the brave? Not any more, we’re not. We’re cowards who not only don’t want to attempt anything dangerous, we don’t want anybody else attempting anything dangerous either. And we don’t care about freedom any more, because we actually request our government to restrict what we can and cannot do.

Land of the free? Ha! Please, Uncle Sam, take away my freedoms so that I can be safe!

Home of the brave? Ha! Please, Uncle Sam, protect me from all these dangerous things!

What happened to us? Why aren’t courage and bravery valued any more? There was a time, not long ago, when thieves worked only in the dark of night for fear of being caught, and thugs only haunted dark alleys for fear of being seen. The bad guys lived in fear of being caught, and the good people lived in peace. Nowadays that’s been turned completely around. The bad guys run rampant in broad daylight, and the good people live in fear of the bad guys. What happened to us?

The news commentators said it all when they criticized Jessica for learning to fly. Should we all stop doing anything that’s dangerous? Should I stop bungee jumping? I’ve jumped 8 times and I plan on doing it again. Is it dangerous? Of course it’s dangerous! That’s why it’s fun! Sure, we don’t want to be foolhardy and suicidal; we have to set limits on ourselves. For example, I never bungee jump into a river, because I know with my luck that at just the moment my head hits the water a log would come floating by! With nails in it!

Now a lot of people have died bungee jumping. I’ll bet that some of you even think that it ought to be outlawed because it’s dangerous. Well, wait a second. Far more people have died mountain climbing. Should we outlaw mountain climbing because it’s dangerous? People died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion; should we abandon our space program because it’s dangerous? People die while scuba diving; should we outlaw scuba diving because it’s dangerous? For heaven’s sake, people die of heart attacks while sitting comfortably in a couch watching TV! Should we therefore say that TV is dangerous and outlaw TV? Or should we instead outlaw the couches?!?

You may disagree with me about this, but please ponder this very carefully. It seems to me that life without virtue is evil, and we have as a nation become evil because we have abandoned the virtues, one of which is courage. When other children learned to fly and they set new flying records, we called them brave and we gave them honor and glory, but when little Jessica attempted the same thing and failed, we called her foolhardy. What hypocrites we are. Either such an attempt is brave and noble, or it is not. Courage is not determined by success or failure. Courage is a virtue by which we remain determined to overcome difficulty. Little Jessica was determined to attempt this difficult task of flying across the country in an airplane designed for grownups. Such determination is clear proof of her courage, and her death in no way diminishes that fact.

You may say, but she made a bad decision that morning. So what? Should we only attempt things after we are 100% sure that our decision is absolutely perfect? If that were the case, we’d never attempt anything, because we all make mistakes, and we can never be totally confident of our decisions. We don’t need to be totally sure. We work at it until it seems like we’ve made it reasonably safe, and then go for it.

You may say, I don’t want my children hearing you, because they might go and do something foolish and get hurt or killed. Yes, you do have a duty to protect your children from harm. But you also have a duty to raise your children, to help them grow into virtuous adults. And the only way to learn bravery is to attempt brave things. The only way that your children can learn the virtue of courage is for you to allow them to be courageous.

I pray that your decisions along those lines will be enlightened by the Holy Spirit, who gives us wisdom. I pray that your decisions will be more prudent than Jessica’s father’s were that fateful morning. And I also pray that the government allows you to teach your children to be courageous. For on the day that they outlaw teaching virtue to children, then on that day we ought to abandon our national anthem, for we will no longer be the land of the free, nor the home of the brave.

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