Searching for a Hero

Confronted with the most horrendous act of mass murder on U.S. soil, I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to write an article on advertising technology. It’s tough for anyone who has to write for industry trade publications such as ClickZ, and writing this certainly has been hard for me. But to take any semblance of victory away from those who committed these terrorist acts, we have to move forward with living our lives.

So I’m determined to find something to take away from this tragedy, some lesson that we can hold close to our chests as a shield against terror and futility. And so very many lessons are turning up.

The Laguna Pueblo of the American Southwest believe that stories are medicine — a powerful type of prayer, ritual, or ceremony that can bring about change. If you ever want evidence of this, read the book “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko. It is an incredible novel that is also a healing ceremony. Many in this country could use a healing ceremony right now. I give the book to anyone I meet who is in need of emotional, physical, or spiritual healing.

One of the lessons I brought away from this book was that written and spoken stories can change the world around us. This is why there is great power in art, film, television, literature, even within the popular versions of all these things. And even perhaps within something as mundane as articles on advertising technology.

So let me tell you a few stories here. Maybe by sharing them we can work toward a few goals, including healing ourselves enough to move on with day-to-day life and, if we try hard enough, surpassing what passed for day-to-day life before this tragedy.

Have you all been following the stories about the heroes of Flight 93, the only hijacked flight not to reach its ground targets last Tuesday? The Associated Press reported that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer managed to call GTE operator Lisa Robinson, who told him about the other three planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It wasn’t hard to realize that Flight 93 was part of the same scheme.

Beamer enlisted the help of the other passengers, and together they formed a plan to fight back. They realized that the only outcome of not fighting back was to die as victims and to let others — possibly hundreds or thousands of others — share their fate. But by taking a chance, they might save lives. Even if they lost their own, they might save lives on the ground.

The phone call lasted 13 minutes. The line was left open as passengers moved forward to overpower the terrorists. The last thing the operator heard was Beamer saying, “Let’s roll.” The plane crashed minutes later, killing all passengers and terrorists aboard. But killing nobody on the ground.

Lately I’ve been watching movies with heroic themes on digital cable. A few nights ago, I watched “Unbreakable” with Bruce Willis. He plays a security guard who is the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck and discovers that he is invulnerable. He has to make a decision whether to use this power to protect others or just continue to live his life as always. It’s a movie — you know how it turned out.

Tonight, I watched the Robert Redford classic “The Natural.” He plays a gifted baseball player who is shot by a serial killer and told he’ll never play again because of his injuries. As a middle-aged man, he returns to the sport as a rookie and helps the worst team in the league win the pennant, fighting off corrupt players and owners all the way.

What we live is real life, and things like that don’t happen… And terrorists don’t destroy the Twin Towers and damage the Pentagon with hijacked commercial airplanes… And unarmed airline passengers don’t rally and overpower armed terrorists to save the Capitol of the United States or the White House.

But this time real life was more amazing than fiction. And to me that says all the rules have changed.

My first degree in college was history. I remember a lecture by one of my professors about John F. Kennedy and how his love of spy novels changed the face of the world. One of Kennedy’s favorite authors was Ian Fleming, and then-unknown British secret agent James Bond was a favorite character. His passion soon became a national one, and today Sean Connery is revered because a president had (arguably) poor taste in literature. (I have to admit to loving to read those novels myself.)

Less known is that the belief that extreme training and incredibly difficult selection processes could build a super soldier drove the military under Kennedy to form the Navy SEALs and the Army Special Forces. Kennedy believed that a small, highly trained force could win a war with fewer resources and less loss of life.

This theory didn’t fully succeed in Vietnam. But that’s not to say there isn’t a place for this kind of thinking. Desert Storm is one example. Another took place last Tuesday. But Flight 93 has some other lessons for us: The spirit of good, honest, normal, everyday people is powerful and extraordinary without any special training. We saw it on the beaches of Normandy, and we saw it on Flight 93. And it’s a lesson we all need to take with us every day.

We all have the power. We all can make a difference every day. Our only job is to show up and give our best. Rise to meet the challenge put before you, and most of the time, you’ll win.

Now I’m going to do something difficult. I’m going to try, without sounding pathetic, to move this story forward and apply it to the online advertising industry. If I’m unsuccessful, please bear with me.

Our industry could stand to learn from the lessons of Flight 93. We have some of the best and brightest minds working on the problems of online advertising: extraordinary, everyday people who work hard and sacrifice and show up over and over again. They’re feeling downtrodden by what’s happening in our space, and the tragedies of last week aren’t going to help much — especially with most of the advertising world living just uptown from ground zero.

On Tuesday of last week, I was working with the rest of the Bluestreak team and Engage’s AdKnowledge team to put the finishing touches on our acquisition of their assets. As I sat in a conference call discussing minutiae of ad-server features, Annette Tonti, our CEO, interrupted the meeting to tell us that the planes that had hit the World Trade Center were commercial airliners and that both towers had just collapsed.

Tuesday was the day we signed the paperwork with Engage finalizing the deal to acquire Ad Knowledge. Amid the worst national tragedy in my lifetime, we were wrapped up in our own dramas, our own stories. When we realized the magnitude of what had happened, our focus went from microscopic to telescopic. Moments later, Bluestreak’s New York team dropped off the call to evacuate — and we haven’t been back to the offices since (we’re on East 11th Street, below the 14th Street emergency zone.)

Unbelievably, this tragedy has been slowly turning toward triumph. The nation is more unified than it’s ever been during my lifetime. Though it’s sad that it takes something like this, people look me in the eye as I pass them on the street. Strangers say hello as we approach each other. It’s made us all feel more human, I think.

There is talk of war. Vengeance. Payback. Maybe that’s what’s coming. But here’s what I walk away with, at least this week: We’re better than this thing that’s happened. And that applies to every aspect of our culture — including online advertising. We can rise above any trouble, any tragedy. We can prevail over these terrible times, and we can come back stronger and healthier than ever.

This isn’t just hype. We can’t let terrorists win: We can’t wallow in fear, anger, and hate. We have to find our own heroes. And many of them are sitting right on the other side of this computer screen reading my words right now. Let’s rise to the occasion. Let’s shake off the cobwebs, and let’s get this industry straightened out. There just isn’t room for mediocrity anymore. We owe it to make life count more now.

I’m sorry that this article was so long. I found it difficult to censor myself. I hope you’ve found some value in my words. Let’s do some good.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

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