Friday, November 6, 2009

When the Thin Blue Line is Breached

Normally, I don’t comment on public events. I started this blog simply to indulge my own interests in the hope of giving you a momentary smile.

Today, however, is different.

Today, just a few blocks from where I sit, the community of those whose lives are sworn to serve and protect us gathered to pay a final tribute to one of their own. While I write this, I can hear helicopters swarming overhead as the memorial service for Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton comes to an end.

The haunting echoes of the bagpipes, the polished boots of the honor guards from across the country, the crack of the rifles firing in salute . . . all these will soon fade.

But the reality remains. On Halloween night, as two Seattle police officers sat in their squad car discussing a traffic stop they had just completed, an old Datsun 210 pulled close to their car and fired shots. One officer was killed instantly. The other was wounded.

This was brutal, intentional slaughter. And it happened here, in a city that takes almost smug pride in our tolerance and civility.

I’m not here to write a treatise on societal violence – others can do that more thoughtfully and from broader points of view than I can. Nor am I here to comment on whether a city should have committed so many resources to honor a single man when so many others have died in so many ways (as a few malcontent bloggers have pointed out).

Timothy Brenton’s funeral today humbled me. Yes, he was one man. But from all reports, he was a good one. And whether or not he had shortcomings, he represented a lot of people I take for granted. People who make my daily life congenial. People who make it possible for me to fuss and worry about a lot of inconsequential things – because I am safe. I wish I didn’t think of these people only when something like this happens, but the fact is, it is because of who they are and what they do that I’m able to ignore their importance in my life.

I realized it in January, 1995 when four Seattle firefighters died in a warehouse arson fire. I was stricken by it, along with the rest of the country, on September 11, 2001. There have been other times when the sudden news of an outrageous tragedy shocks me into realization – and, unfortunately, there will be more.

It will happen again, because the people who have made it their business to keep me safe will keep putting themselves out there on my behalf. They’ll leave for their shifts everyday, never sure of whether they’ll reach the end of those shifts alive. That sounds dramatic, I know. But, in fact, it is true. And I don’t think about it until days like today.

I’ve only known one police officer in my life, my Uncle Wallace, and he wasn’t exactly the stuff of prime time TV drama. He was overweight, full of malapropisms, sometimes crochety, sometimes soft-hearted, and, always, a genuinely good man. I was his youngest niece and he took special pleasure in stopping by to see me at school when my class was out for recess. His leather belt full of eqipment squeaked when he walked, and he didn’t mind letting the boys in my class play with the lights on his police car (the siren was off limits). My connection to Uncle Wallace definitely enhanced my standing with my third grade peers (although not quite as much as that of my other uncle who owned the ferris wheel and gave free rides to anyone who showed up with me).

But that’s as far as my connection to what is essentially a closed community goes. I don’t know what it’s like to dread a knock on the door, or a late night phone call when my husband is supposed to be at work. I don’t normally flinch at the sound of a siren, thinking it might be about someone I love. I’m not a cop’s or a firefighter’s wife, or daughter, or mom.

I’m just an everyday, preoccupied, often ungrateful, citizen. When I get a ticket, I fume. When I dial 9-1-1, I expect somebody to show up and help me out. I’m not usually mindful that they’ve spent years of their lives training to be able to be there for me when I need them – that they answer my call not knowing whether they’re walking into a dangerous situation or not – that they have skills and knowledge I couldn’t even imagine needing – and that their whole purpose is to keep the rest of us safe.

Today, as Seattle fell momentarily silent, I remembered that they’re there. And that they’re there even when I don’t remember.

And that’s why today, I’m going to use this space to say thank you . . . to the firefighters who are willing to risk their lives to save mine . . . to the EMTs who know what to do when I need them to do it and who would rather come when I don’t really need them than have me not call when I do . . . to the Washington State Patrol, because even though I dread the sight of them and their radar guns along the highway to the beach, I know their real goal is to keep me from killing myself or someone else . . . and especially to the Seattle Police Department.  You are good people.

Thank you.

Friday afternoon, as I sat down to write and as the memorial service was ending, Seattle Police officers shot and arrested a man whom they believe to be Officer Brenton’s murderer when he pulled a weapon on them as they approached him.