That quote's taken out of context, of course, destined to be overshadowed by what comes before it in Richard Tillman's interview with HBO's Bill Maher. As Tillman said (in full this time) about his brother's infamous death by friendly fire:
"I wish he would've just lit these fucking idiots up with his own gun. 'Cause he knew that they were shooting at him. I wish he didn't have so much character, and he would've shot his own guys."
His words are hard to stomach, but then, so is the entire interview, as Maher probes away, looking to advance conspiracy theories, while Tillman avoids the bait, but advances his own frustrations regardless. Whatever we take away, it leads to some uncomfortable truth:
And we're returned to the initial question: What if Pat Tillman didn't have so much character?
If he'd just been another good NFL player, well-liked by teammates, beloved by fans, confined to a life that most of us would kill for. If he hadn't given up NFL millions to make thousands patrolling Afghanistan. Or if he'd enlisted, but requested special assignment, ensuring his safety, and ability to help the Army recruiting efforts. Or, as his brother says, if he'd fired back on the over-zealous idiots that decided he was the enemy on April 22, 2004.
We can't know what Pat Tillman was thinking when he went to war, but nevertheless, the American government shaped a legacy in death that Tillman never asked for in life. And today, his apparent skepticism of the war has been used by creeps like Maher, determined to use his death as an example of What's Wrong with the U.S. Military.
Both sides are right, of course. Regardless of motivations or circumstance, Pat Tillman died serving his country at time of need. For that, he's a hero.
And regardless of whether the government conspired to murder him, the government certainly conspired to cover-up the circumstances surrounding his death. Pat Tillman's definitely an example of What's Wrong with the hierarchy of the U.S. military.
But in between the poles of the politicization of Pat Tillman, there's just a tragedy. Not a sacrifice that brings us to tears, and not an injustice that prompts a universal outcry. Just a horrible tragedy. An empty, bottomless pit that sits in all our stomachs, knowing that someone like Pat Tillman is no longer with us.
As his brother Richard infamously said to religious mourners like John McCain at the funeral, "He's not with God. He's fucking dead. He's not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead." And who knows? I'm religious, and I like to think that people like Pat Tillman end up in Heaven. So maybe he's with God, maybe not. But he's definitely "fucking dead."
And when we think back to his demise, whichever version you believe, it's pretty clear that he'd still be with us if he were just a little less virtuous. Whether it was his refusal to shoot back at the people that killed him, or his journey to Afghanistan in the first place, Pat Tillman died because he was a better, more courageous person than most anyone our society can claim.
That's a terrible tragedy for us, and a hard truth to comprehend.
But it's proven to this day. By all the cover-ups, the conspiracy theories, the propaganda campaigns, the reverse-propaganda the new documentary, and now Bill Maher, sniveling on about Pat Tillman as "an inconvenient patriot." Tillman was so much better than all this.
In his absence, it's hard to know who to trust or what to think, but even so, Pat Tillman's death doesn't say anything meaningful about America, because stuff like this happens all the time. And in the absence of a booming sermon on corruption or courage, it gets more difficult. That someone like Tillman could offer his life for his country, then have it taken by his country's troops, then become an object of propaganda on both sides of his country's aisles--the profound perversion of it all undermines everything we ever learned about good, and evil, and the fundamental sense of justice that governs this world. It leaves us to wonder... Maybe Pat's not with God, after all.