Mass shootings are never simple. Regardless of how simple determining a ’cause’ may be, and how easily we are able to punish those at fault, no one wins. Loved ones are still gone. Lives are forever changed for the worse. Justice and new procedures never right the wrongs, never make everything better. Such will be the case in the Parkland, Florida shooting.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the nation once again soul-searches for an answer to ‘why’ and how to stop future events like this. Many are quick to point a finger at the first sign of failure. We want to ban guns. We want to crucify the FBI for their lack of action, to control the mentally disabled, to fire someone. Anyone. The most recent revelations about Sheriff’s Deputies who failed to confront Nicholas Cruz have left some seething with anger for their inaction. Understandably so. Seventeen souls are gone–family members, friends, teachers, children, loved ones–and more aggressive action on the part of those deputies may have changed that dramatically.
I flew as a Close Air Support (CAS) Pilot for many years. I trained for hours on end, studied the rules, the limits of my aircraft, the effects of the weapons I carried, and how to interact and integrate with the ground forces I swore to protect. With time, I was pretty good at maneuvering my aircraft to employ it when necessary to protect lives on the ground. I felt like I was a pretty good Close Air Support pilot. But the more I did it, the more times I pushed the limits of myself and my aircraft, the more I realized that those skills and knowledge were just the baseline of being a great support and protector to the soldiers on the ground. The most important element of being a great CAS pilot was an unwillingness to lose, a love for each and every unnamed soldier on the ground who requested and needed help. If I did not value them more than I valued myself, more than I valued the rules or even my training and procedures, I would likely meet my match where at some point the training and the skills and the desire to ‘do well’ would not be enough.
Those deputies, regardless of how young they were, were probably well-trained law enforcement officers. They probably had specific procedures in the case of a hostage situation that even drove them to act as they did. And for most situations, those procedures were probably right. Like in CAS flying, however, the rules don’t always solve the problem. Those rules and training and standard operating procedures are the foundation to solid execution, but without real understanding of the ‘why’ behind the mission, that foundation will sometimes fall short. I once had a boss who said, “Find a way to say yes. An 18-year old soldier’s life may depend on what you do today.” That boss understood that marksmanship, excellent flying, perfectly executed rules and a clean uniform were only side shows to why we were there in the first place. We were there as CAS pilots to be an extension of that ground force, an airborne protection when needed.
The same is true for law enforcement officers. They keep the peace. They write tickets and enforce the laws. They make arrests, handle criminals, aid the the flow of traffic, and otherwise help the rest of us follow our societal rules. But underlying all of those duties is the duty and inherent need to love their fellow man enough to put themselves in harm’s way, to protect the unprotected, and occasionally use deadly force to do so. None of them want to consider the last, especially with the scrutiny under which they act, but they must. I knew a number of CAS pilots who were outstanding pilots, better than average in their technical ability to do the job. Some of them, however, fell short as true protectors of those soldiers on the ground because the heart of a protector was not there. They were technicians–good ones–who had not yet learned the real reason they were there.
Police officers are merely an extension of ourselves. We do not get power from the government for anything. We give powers to the government and its agents to act on our behalf. We arm them more than we arm ourselves to protect the peace–to protect ourselves and our loved ones. In order to do that, to do it as we would do it, their love of their fellow man has to be a part of who they are and what they do. I don’t know these four deputies. I don’t know their family history, the type of people they are, or how they interacted with those around them. I do know, however, that because they had not yet learned the real purpose and power of their positions, they were unable to help effectively. I would not start to find answers to this tragedy in gun laws or lawsuits or the firing of these deputies. I would start by asking why that key element was missing, or secondary to other things in such a horrific situation.
Protectors have to have the heart of a protector, not that of a law enforcement officer.