The story of the soldier returning home to a country he no longer recognizes is a very old one. From Thucydides to Lieutenant Dan, Robin Hood to Titus Andronicus, it’s a dark irony as old as combat itself. This historical precedence has given me solace in the years since I returned home from Iraq; “It’s all been done” is a cliché, but clichés can comfort in the sleepless night.
“It’s all been done” is what I kept telling myself as I watched the growing rift between police departments across America and the communities they’re charged with protecting and serving. Ebb and flow, checks and balances, the center would hold, et cetera. It was mostly working until Saturday, when a group of NYPD officers turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral of fallen Officer Rafael Ramos.
It was a petty, unprofessional act that I’d hoped the police who participated were above. Worse, it was a calculated and political act—this wasn’t a decision made in a heated moment, as occurred earlier in the week at Woodhull Hospital, where officers lining the hallways did the same thing to the mayor. And it was an act that'll lead to imitations and parroting, as evidenced by the boos and heckling of de Blasio at Monday's Police Academy graduation.
Comparisons between the military and the police are always tricky, if only because they’re inevitably oversimplified. Police have unions, for one, and those unions influence the elections of their civilian leadership. They’re charged with serving their own local communities, a much different thing than being ordered to invade or occupy foreign soil in the name of one’s country. Still—the very idea of a group of service members, in uniform and in formation, turning its back on an elected official in the chain-of-command reeks of something out of a dystopian film. Yet that’s exactly what some in the NYPD did on Saturday, taking attention away from the life and service of their brother-in-arms in the process.
Whether de Blasio did or did not let down our men and women in blue is beside the point, though impassioned, grandstanding speeches by union heads, activists and opportunists on the political comeback trail will suggest otherwise. Whether taken in police blue or military camo, an oath of service doesn’t come with an asterisk. The very bedrock of our republic is the idea that those charged to execute violence on our behalf are beholden to—and yes, submissive to—civilians elected from the citizenry, and to the laws those civilians enact.
Of course, police have constitutional rights to express themselves. And some will argue that turning backs on the mayor, while disrespectful, is a peaceful display of protest, not unlike those that have popped up across America in 2014 after various shooting deaths of young black men. But as anyone who’s ever put on a uniform, or had a loved one do so, can attest, those individual rights of expression become secondary when the greater good—of the department, the unit, the community and the country—become involved. The police who turned their backs on the mayor failed in their duty on Saturday because they deliberately helped erode respect for the authority of elected leadership.
I come from a long line of Irish-American cops. I was raised to respect and treasure those who put it all on the line for us—and still believe that they do so, despite all the noise and outrage generated by recent events, despite the tiny minority of bad police officers making things difficult for them all. And I learned firsthand in Iraq that decisions made in split seconds have lasting, damning consequences, consequences that no one could ever intend or anticipate. But this isn’t that. This is about political statements made by an ostensibly apolitical force, during a moment that should’ve remained apolitical. (The mayor was an invited guest of the Ramos family, let’s remember.) Feeling under siege, and in a rush to protect themselves and their own, the NYPD officers in question contributed to the police-civilian divide, at a time when we all, uniformed and otherwise, desperately need to be seeking common ground.
Much of this echoes another prominent divide in American society, the military-civilian one. When my grandfather’s ship returned from the Pacific in 1945, he returned to his police blues, along with a host of other World War II veterans in his precinct. Same with my uncle and cousins when their planes landed from Vietnam. These men and women had dealt with the merciless complexities of combat; generally speaking, there wasn’t much on the beat that they couldn’t handle. Some contemporary police have military backgrounds to fall back on. Most don’t.
So it’s no wonder that in this post-9/11 era of yellow ribbon patriotism, and an all-volunteer military that comprises only one percent of the American population, that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan find ourselves speaking out against police excesses—with a strange sort of authority, and a lot of hesitancy. Certainly my instinct is to identify with the police, no matter the circumstance. Veterans are a small minority of the population, as well, serving the greater whole. We also have a language filled with distaste for the civilian “others.” We’ve been shot at, too. We’ve made hard choices in harder environments and lost friends and comrades that we’ll name our sons and daughters after. We’ll also Never Forget.
And yet—as any private who went through basic can tell you—good weapons training means not shooting wildly 14 times. (Milwaukee, April.) As anyone who went on a patrol through IED Alley can attest, armored vehicles aren’t there to ride on the outside of, to look cool or authoritative (Ferguson, August), but to ride inside of and maybe, hopefully, survive a roadside blast. And as anyone who labored through a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq or Afghanistan will always remember, going after low-level crimes like selling cigarettes (Staten Island, July) does nothing but bring more unrest and instability to a neighborhood.
I don’t reference those isolated instances for criticism’s sake. I reference them because when you’ve been charged with carrying the gun in name of community and country, an engaged citizenry owes you both its gratitude and its skepticism.
As I watch the news of the various protests, I try to remember that it’s okay that I don’t recognize the nation I decided to serve—it doesn’t owe me anything. Being a U.S. Army scout platoon leader remains the greatest privilege of my life, even if the greater mission turned out much differently than I thought it would. And I’m sure many an NYPD officer will think similarly of their New York when angry protests return to the forefront after Officer Wenjian Liu is laid to rest. That’s okay, too. After all, our men and women in uniform—and yes, they belong to all of us, and we to them—don’t have to like Mayor de Blasio. They don’t even have to respect him. But they damn well better respect his office.
That’s how this crazy thing called America works.