There’s a terrible movie I can’t get out of my head, a real-life image from the news this week:
A police officer, responding to a vague report of shots fired, comes across an idling patrol car, sitting motionless on a dark, deserted street.
The next moment is the worst of that officer’s career, maybe of that officer’s life: The discovery of a colleague, a brother policeman, shot dead without having had the chance to get out of the car, unholster a service weapon, call for help.
In confronting this scene of horror, what depth of despair did that surviving officer feel? Two officers: One living, the other dead; one fallen, one heartbroken. It must have been as agonizing as a sudden stab wound, a paralyzing blow to the solar plexus.
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This scene played out twice early Wednesday, in Des Moines, Iowa, and in its neighboring suburb of Urbandale. Two officers were ambushed barely two miles apart, both reportedly by a man who roughly fits the description of the all the mass shooters and cop killers who haunt the fringes of American society: violent, obsessive, radioactive with grievance.
“This is not something that the City of Des Moines has dealt with, where someone decides to go shoot a couple of public safety officers,” said the city’s distraught police chief, Dana Wingert.
Dallas has. More than 50 officers have been shot to death while on duty in this country so far this year, but the single worst incident was right here, in July, when a lunatic gunman assassinated five of our own during a downtown protest march. It was a galvanizing, traumatic event, one that we’re still sorting out.
What can we tell Iowa about coping with the loss of its officers?
Only this: Our hearts hurt for you. In your grief, we stand with you.
There’s not much else: No formula, no how-to-handle-it, no secret playbook for banishing that disorienting sense of “This doesn’t happen here,” because sometimes it just does. Chaos, by definition, can’t be predicted or prevented. There’s no vaccination against shock.
And shock is the only response in a civilized culture to the deliberate murder of law enforcement officers for no reason besides the uniform they wear. It’s the only response to gun-wielding lunatics who blame somebody else because their lives are falling apart; who have nursed and fed their overweening rage as if it were a monstrous and insatiable infant.
The Iowa murders might have had a larger media footprint had they been linked to an inflammatory political issue: terrorism, illegal immigration, police shootings of minority suspects. I don’t expect that the absence of any of these talking points – the Iowa shooter is an unhinged home-grown white man – makes the pain any easier to bear ground zero, the Des Moines and Urbandale police departments. To the survivors, murder is personal, not political.
“We’re a very tight-knit community,” said Des Moines Police Department spokesman Sgt. Paul Parizek this week. “Des Moines is not a big city. We all know each other. We’re heartbroken.”
Dallas, of course, is a big city, but we understand that heartbreak just the same. The communities where officers have been shot this year range from our own 3,000-plus police force to speck-sized Danville, Ohio, where a patrol officer was murdered by a gunman whose ex-girlfriend said he was “looking to kill an officer.” The murder wiped out one-sixth of Danville’s police department.
The fallen include a rookie policewoman in Prince William County, Va., who was shot to death her first day on the job, and an Arkansas sheriff’s deputy a few weeks short of retirement. Two officers killed last month answering a domestic disturbance call in Palm Springs, Calif, were a 63-year-old veteran and his 27-year-old partner, who had just returned to duty following maternity leave.
They were men and women, white, black, and Latino. They were regular working Joes like the rest of us, except for the uniform they wore.
The uniform made them targets. There’s not a police department so big, or a city so cynical, that this ugly reality wouldn’t come as a profound shock.
So I don’t know that Dallas can provide much in the way of advice or counsel. All we can offer is our sympathy, and our hearts.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.