Short-Haired Superheroes?

Why men of action unnerve me, in the neighborhood and at 30,000 feet

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME

I almost didn't buy our house because it's on a street with a neighborhood watch. It's not that I mind being watched. In fact, I am so desperate to be watched, I say yes to offers to appear on shows on the E! network.

It's just that I'm less afraid of criminals than of guys in a neighborhood watch. Not only am I worried that they're going to engage me in a discussion about "suspicious persons," which is going to devolve into a long, painful argument about which one of us is racist, but I'm even more panicked that they'll ask me to join their patrols. The only way I would willingly watch my neighborhood is if all my TVs broke, the Internet stopped working, I had insomnia and my neighborhood was holding my eyes open with a speculum, Clockwork Orange--style. Even then, I would drive to a more exciting neighborhood and watch it.

Neighborhood-watch guys have always creeped me out because they seem a little eager for something to go wrong, like they've been waiting for one act of heroism to fulfill their lives. It's not as if happy young couples are always telling friends, "Oh, we'd love to get sushi and catch The Artist, but Friday is our night to scream at teenagers sitting on curbs." So I'm not surprised that George Zimmerman, the man who shot teenager Trayvon Martin for wearing a hoodie, was the coordinator of his neighborhood-watch group.

The difference between a dangerous man and a heroic man is too small and too circumstantial for me to ever take a chance by talking to one of them. Yet we act shocked by neighborhood-watch killers and soldiers who commit atrocities overseas. Shocked that violent men don't always figure out who deserves their aggression and who doesn't. That's because we live in a comic-book-soaked culture in which we convince ourselves that aggression can be neatly meted out in zooms and kabows. It may have just become clear that I've never actually read a comic book.

The thing we celebrate most in this culture--other than fame, money, looks, youth, business success, vocal ability and a good sex tape--is violent male heroism. We were transfixed by the guys who tackled the Jet Blue pilot who had a mental breakdown and went screaming down the aisles, yelling about bombs. The flight was packed with men headed to Las Vegas for the International Security Conference West. If that doesn't make you believe in God, then I won't even tell you about the guy having trouble opening an e-mail attachment while on a flight to Vegas at the time of the Consumer Electronics Show.

One of those heroes, David Gonzalez, a retired corrections officer who works for a security and surveillance company and was on that JetBlue flight, restrained the pilot gone berserk for most of the flight, largely by sitting on him. Afterward, he told a news crew, "He started to say, 'You better pray, Iraq and Iran.' So I said, 'You know what, I'm going to show you what Iraq and Iran is,' and I took him in a choke hold." Another of the JetBlue tacklers, ex--police sergeant Paul Babakitis, told a reporter, "I said to myself, Not on this flight. Not on this flight." These men talk like action heroes. The only time I've ever talked like an action hero was when I once said, "Hasta la vista, baby," which was when I was in Spain saying goodbye to a baby, and I couldn't remember the Spanish word for baby. It is beb.

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