IT NEVER SEEMS more than a few days before the contention, the bickering, the tugging at the idol begins. And now, right on schedule, it is here: was there really a heroic "man in the water" who gave his own life in the course of helping other Air Florida Flight 90 victims to live? Maybe it was more than one. Maybe it was no one. Maybe the whole thing was a misperception. No, come the responses from others, there was such a man--from which assertion there then flows a great deal of argument as to which man it was. One gets an intimation from all this that even if and when the existence and identity of the man in question is established it will only be a matter of time before some researcher somewhere is quoted as saying that the poor fellow, suffering from hypothermia, probably didn't even know what he was doing.

Our own feeling is that very little of this argument matters. That there was such a man appears to have been certified by the rescuers themselves. It would be nice if his identity could be established, comforting to an anguished family and gratifying to all in that it would result in an act of heroism's being suitably recognized and attributed to one who deserves special respect.

But the act itself has been memorialized already in the emotions of those countless Americans who heard of it, who gave it full range in their imagination, who felt their own humanity honored and enlarged because of it. In an essay in Time magazine, our former colleague, Roger Rosenblatt, has written movingly of the man in the water: "He was the best we can do." That, it seems to us, has it exactly right. The anonymity, so far, of the hero does no more to diminish the grandeur of his act than such anonymity does, say, to diminish the sacrifice made by the unknown soldier. On the contrary, in a strange way it merely universalizes it.