The long arm of a hero -- and the law

Edward McGuire, a 6-foot-4-inch young man with a very long reach, who happens to be studying criminal justice, is in trouble with the law himself. On the night of Sept. 2, Mr. McGuire stretched out his extra-long arm and locked it about the waist of another young man who was threatening to jump from the roof of a six-story apartment building in Larchmont, N.Y. After a bit of push-and-shove, Mr. McGuire wrestled the would-be suicide to safety.

A hero is born, you might presume. And so thought most of the cheering crowd that had gathered during the two hours of ledge-edging suspense. The Larchmont police thought otherwise. They had gone to the trouble of setting up a life-net. They believed they were about to talk the teeterer down. Even though they conceded that Mr. McGuire's intentions were ''good,'' the police felt so annoyed at his intervention that they charged him with ''obstruction of governmental administration,'' a misdemeanor that could cost Mr. McGuire one year in jail or a fine of $1,000, or both.

''Let a pro handle it'' has become one of life's commonest choruses now that we are all specialists at something or other. But has the Larchmont police department carried the cult of the expert too far?

One can imagine a scene like this. Just as the Larchmont men in blue are flashing their badges to put Mr. McGuire - the amateur! - in his proper place on the sidelines, a psychologist, waving his graduate degree in crisis-handling, comes bustling up, pushing the officers aside in turn with cries of: ''Let a truly trained man through.''

Or one can imagine another scene, hundreds of years ago. Outside of a castle, in the middle of a dark woods, there is a Damsel in Distress. A knight is riding to rescue her from three ogres, or maybe two dragons. Who knows? In any event, the best balladeer in the kingdom is present, with his faithful old strummer in hand, ready to chronicle the unforgettable act of chivalry about to occur.

Suddenly a little man with a clipboard steps out of a thicket, directly in the path of the cantering knight. Holding up an officious finger, he says: ''Just half a minute here, sir. Are you a properly accredited dragon-slayer? May I see your license from the Bureau of Heroes? Hmm. Just as I suspected. This permit allows you to fight giants but not dragons. Besides, you're at least half a mile out of your territory. And the license expired last month anyway. I'll have to bring you in for this. We don't take kindly to unauthorized heroes in this kingdom. After a year in the dungeon maybe you'll think twice before you thoughtlessly try to save somebody's life.''

Four lawyers have volunteered to represent Mr. McGuire. An indignant letter was posted at the Larchmont train station, arguing that a criminal is a mugger or a rapist and the police should be arresting them rather than young students with long arms who help people off roofs.

It is, of course, important - this distinction between what a criminal is and is not. But it is also important to understand what a hero is and is not. A true hero is always an amateur, even when he is a professional. For he is doing something ''beyond the call of duty.'' There is bound to be a touch of excess to a hero. The mayor of Larchmont is right when he speaks of ''rashness.'' Heroes, by definition, are risk-takers, and sometimes the risks involve other people.

We would not want heroes around the house, day after day, leaping into every breach, taking matters into their own hands. But that isn't really the problem. On the whole, we are not suffering from a surplus of heroes. We live in a world of it's-none-of-my-business - a world of walkers-on-the-other-side.

If this is so, can we really afford to discourage by the processes of arrest and trial and possible punishment those relatively few individuals in modern society who will still stick their foolhardy necks out for other people? Sir Galahad might have an answer.

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