I’ll admit it: “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers gall me. So do American flags on golf tournament flagsticks, attended by Marines in full dress. Not because serving and veteran military don’t deserve attention. They do. No, I find such displays annoying because most of the people who see them, and even some of the people who make them, will go no further than lip service. If you can find one in 10 people on the street who know we’re at war, and have been for years, you’re probably ahead of the average. If you can find one in 20 who understand the immense sacrifice, homelessness, mental health risks, job problems, and family strains modern military face, again you likely have beaten the statistical curve.
Yes, there are many people who truly care for the plight of the military and help as best they can. But in many other cases,, Support Our Troops chic feels to me like businesses co-opting suffering to pump an extra buck out of people who want a quick I’m-deep endorphin hit.
But believe it or not, there’s a class of public servant that gets even less sincere attention.
We take police for granted because we see them much more often than, say, a platoon of Army Rangers. We even suspect and fear police, especially in cities, because their more noble exploits (the majority) don’t sell as many papers or get high ratings. Give us a Rodney King situation, though, and we’re willing to pour mental acid on all cops. It was ever thus — no matter how few bad-apple police there may have been in the 1960s, when Chicago Police went nuts at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the counterculture was happy to brand all police as pigs.
I have met a few nasty cops. We all have. I have met many more who are courteous, patient, experts in human behavior, and truly dedicated to public service. How could you not have public service clearly in mind and still do this job? The donut-munching malingerer is a jokey stereotype that stopped being funny long ago. And while the risks soldiers take cannot be minimized, there is a substantial difference: the professional soldier generally enters a zone where he can expect an enemy and combat, and he is trained accordingly. The Kandahars and Tora Boras of the world are known danger zones, with all that goes with.
But a professional peace officer, except in the worst zones of inner cities, moves through a world that is presumed to be calm and civilized. His or her job s to keep that peace, whatever hidden dangers might reveal themselves. And they do burst from cover in the most deadly ways.
Our first indication, down at the boathouse Saturday morning, was unusually heavy traffic on the main road outside the fence, a quiet two-lane where smart drivers hew to the 30-mph limit in the little town of Windermere, Fla., because they know the local police policies. As people arrived late for their rowing workouts, we learned, bit by bit: a major intersection was closed, diverting traffic. It was full of evidence. In our quiet hamlet, a seeming bastion of safety full of comfortable homes and law-abiding folk, a teenage couple on foot had been stopped at about 4 a.m. by a lone police officer who inquired what they were doing out walking at that late hour. As far as anyone can yet puzzle out, one of the couple shot and killed the 31-year-old officer, then went across the street and murder-suicided themselves into oblivion. There is speculation that the couple may have just tried to rob a nearby pharmacy; details remain to be discovered.
The news has, predictably, rocked the town and undermined the overarching sense of safety. It has also reminded people of the special risk of police work: that at any moment, in big cities or even small towns, its practitioners could be walking into the last moments of their lives in order to protect the many remaining moments of ours.
Next time you hear of a routine police stop, remember: there’s no such thing.
© 2014 Adam Barr