The next day, September 8, two of the Globe’s front-page photos were dedicated to Payne’s funeral — one of his casket atop a fire engine and flanked by mourning firemen, and one of his mother weeping. Again, the lead article jumped to a full page of A SOLEMN FAREWELL coverage. Again, this full page featured beautiful, heart-rending full-color photographs. And again, the lead article seemed designed to evoke maximum pathos. Here’s how it began: “After the roar of the preacher’s sermon, after firefighters handed his mother a medal and one of his sons his black helmet, after a fire bell clanged in his honor, eight of Warren J. Payne’s crewmembers carried his casket outside the church in Dorchester where thousands of men in dark suits and white gloves stood beneath a bright sun in a stone-faced salute.”
Suppose you’re a Boston firefighter. After the funerals in September, you looked at the Globe and liked what you saw: the paper honored your fallen comrades, respected your profession, and conveyed the depth of your loss to the public at large. Then, this past week, it was telling people that Cahill was falling-down drunk when he died and that Payne had recently used coke. And you thought, you two-faced bastards.
To be fair, it’s no surprise that the Boston media abetted the early mythologizing of Cahill and Payne. When someone dies, there’s an instinctive tendency, both among the press and the public, to play up their strengths and ignore their flaws. What’s more, Cahill and Payne’s funerals offered a tremendous opportunity for the kind of vivid, emotion-generating coverage (“The clouds had broken and the sun shown brightly on the family . . . ”) that most journalists prize. It’s also a hard fact that firefighters, like police officers and soldiers, routinely risk their lives in the line of duty — something that tends to elicit admiration from those of us who don’t, especially in this era of an all-volunteer US military and a service economy that insulates most of us from daily risk. (This same admiration makes us inclined to accept the official version of any civil-servant death — remember NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman?) Finally, the death of a firefighter seems like something everyone can mourn, without reservation. Some people oppose the Iraq War; others distrust the police. But firefighters protect all of us from an elemental, terrifying, impersonal threat.
From a sociological point of view, the media’s active participation in the construction of a Cahill-Payne hagiography served a valuable purpose. “Since it’s rational to be self-interested, heroism is irrational, almost,” says Jennifer Lois, an associate professor of sociology at Western Washington University and author of Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers (NYU Press). “So most existing societies have constructed a way to confer this very prestigious identification on people who sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. It’s a paradox: you end up becoming individually revered for sacrificing yourself.” In other words, by heaping praise upon Cahill and Payne, the Boston press aided in a cultural transaction that helps keep firefighters serving and the rest of us safe.
The downside, obviously, is that stories like this don’t necessarily end when people want them to. Weeks or months later, the press may end up sullying the memory of the same heroes it originally glorified. And when this happens, the public may be confused by our inconstancy — or even become downright hostile.