There is a tragic irony in the context of the greater tragedy of the law officers who died Thursday on the streets of Dallas. Those on the scene were escorting citizens participating in a demonstration – a peaceful demonstration – in protest of recent fatal shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by white officers, the latest incidents to call attention to the fear many in minority communities have when they encounter police officers.
The Dallas officers were fulfilling their sworn duty to serve and protect. They were not out to bash heads or to fire at people or to subdue a riot. They were simply protecting the safety of those participating.
The slain suspect in the attack has been identified as 25-year-old Micah Johnson. What motivated the killer, at his core, will become clearer in the light of the next few days, but Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who responded with clarity and courage in the wake of the killings of five of his officers, said the suspect told officers he “wanted to kill white people.”
Every day, from Dallas to Los Angeles to Raleigh, law officers go on duty knowing the power they have, and the vast majority use that power judiciously. Often, their encounters with the public are about helping people, about safeguarding lost children or assisting the elderly or trying to get help for those with mental or physical illness. At its core, being a law officer requires compassion and common sense as well as strength and the use of force.
Chief Brown got to that message in his remarks, remarks made in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of his officers and the wounding of seven others, along with the injuries to two civilians. He did not dodge the alleged racial motivation of the crime, but he focused on the more profound issues of the sacrifices made by his officers. For his part, President Obama called the shootings a "tremendous tragedy" and, perhaps to reassure the families of victims, said, "justice will be done." Attorney General Loretta Lynch, citing the incidents that allegedly spurred this action and the horror in Dallas, said, "The answer must not be violence, never violence. Our answer must be to act."
Indeed, all Americans, now focused on this tragedy, must surely first think of the families of those officers who fell, whose lives have been ruined. The officers were motivated by a spirit of service. The gunman and any accomplices (details are still being investigated) were motivated by hate and impulse.
Police officers, wherever they serve, mount a spirited defense of all those who stand in the Thin Blue Line, and understandably so. But there have been too many incidents wherein the performance of law enforcement has been called into serious question.
So it now falls to mayors, to governors, to us all to join a serious dialogue in this country about all the forces at work here, from race and class to abuse of power to guns. That dialogue should not continue to occur only in the wake of tragedy. It should be ongoing, it should be never-ending and it should result in actions at all levels of government and in all institutions of society – churches, civic groups, schools, universities, corporate board rooms – to advance understanding among all people.
But what all people now must focus on is the mourning of those who died Thursday night in Dallas – doing their duty.