In dramatic fiction, a key element is to design the right hero and the right villain.
Designing a character is always a complicated process, mapping out his or her back-story, envisioning the hurts and losses and triumphs that shaped him or her. But, in a larger-than-life sense, the hero is key in what he represents. He's what the audience needs or aspires to be. He's what society needs to save it from darkness. Ditto for the villain, for he embodies that darkness. But, what faces the hero and villain wear depend entirely on your point of view.
Writers may try to aim for the needs of their target audience in selecting their heroes and villains. And, the public selects its own heroes and villains from real life. Whom we choose as hero or villain is a reflection of what defines us, individually and collectively. How we respond to each defines us, too. So, who are our real-life heroes and villains?
George Zimmerman. Hero or Villain? To the African American community, he's the villain of the piece. If he was a comic book villain, he'd probably be called "The Profiler" (oh wait...that's taken.) Maybe, "The Wraith." That's what he did. He hovered like a wraith, waiting (maybe hoping) to see someone sufficiently different from himself invading the confines of his sacred space so he could spring into action. What drove him? Fear? Hate? Or, just a desperate need to feel relevant. And, heroic. Yeah, he's the villain to everyone who's ever been stopped, frisked, interrogated or otherwise harassed because he "didn't fit." (A euphemism for being one of that "other" group we don't want in our neighborhood.) But, one gets the impression that Zimmerman is someone who desperately (and pathetically) wanted or needed to be a hero. Society casts the young black male in baggy pants and hoody as today's villain; equivalent to the mustache-twirling top-hat wearing villain of another era. See a villain, confront a villain. That was Zimmerman's view. And, he had on his side the "stand your ground" law which is basically a license for hero wannabes to create situations in which they then have an excuse to shoot somebody. A law that tries to turn life into an action movie, casting our own selected heroes and villains. The law seems designed (guess by whom) to allow a George Zimmerman to stand his ground, but not a Trayvon Martin. Like Rodney King, Bernhard Goetz, and other cases that starkly outlined our society's racial divisions, forcing people to identify their heroes and villains, this grim drama has once again sparked national debate and revealed, as always, that attitudes have not progressed as far as we'd like to think.
Edward Snowden. Hero or Villain? Here, society wallows in ambiguity. On the one hand, we live in an age of fear, of "trust no one" and "always keep your guard up." In this paranoid age of looking for terrorists in our closets, we have come to vindicate, even idolize as our heroes government agents who invade our privacy, even kidnap, secretly imprison and torture their victims, telling ourselves their atrocities are necessary to keep us all safe. And so, we have no use for whistle-blowers, for wimpy, whiny, idealistic, goody-goody government clerks who tattle on our spy agencies. To people who think along those lines, Edward Snowden is the villain. On the other hand, we also live in an age of "don't trust the government." Given that attitude of seeing Big Brother at every turn, an Edward Snowden, who punches a hole in the veil of government secrecy, revealing the fact that sneaky-peeky Washington agencies are monitoring our phone calls and emails, may be seen by many as the hero of the story. I have to admit, he reminds me a bit of Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell's immortal distopian novel 1984; a clerk who worked in an all-powerful government registry that watched everyone. Smith secretly despised the despotic superstate and was just waiting for his chance to sabotage it from within. Snowden's on-going story also contains elements of the kind of James Bond-esque international intrigue that makes for a good drama. Whatever his ultimate fate and whether he lingers in our collective memory as hero or villain, there's no doubt that Edward Snowden has sparked another badly needed national debate on the proper reach and potential abuse of governmental information gathering and the invisible power of intelligence agencies. (Of course, we all know our perceptions of Snowden are bordered by the fact he's as white as they come. If he were black, we'd have the Tea Party hanging him in effigy, screaming for his blood and calling him an "Arab out to destroy America.")
Ronald Reagan. Hero or Villain? In the closing years of the cold war, he was the chosen hero of white America. A Hollywood cowboy actor who made us feel good about ourselves again with a simple-minded comic book hero mentality of "stopping the evil empire." For progressives, he was definitely the villain. I still vividly remember him apologizing and making excuses for the brutalities of the white-supremacist regime that ruled South Africa then. And, when the question arose of whether Dr. Martin Luther King should be officially remembered as a national hero, Reagan was one of the thinly disguised voices of opposition, holding out the possibility that Dr. King may in fact have been a communist agitator.
In short, heroism and villainy are pretty much defined in your head by who you are and which window you're looking out of. Whether we admit it or not, race will always go to the heart of it. Every society needs heroes, and villains for them to fight, but when a society is divided, it’s hard to choose them.