While Christians are reading a story that includes angels singing about peace on earth, President Obama is beginning to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and residents of northern Illinois are debating whether we will be safe if prisoners from Gitmo are transferred to the facility in Thomson.
A few days ago I sat down with Police Chief Jim Ryan, Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas, Lt. Steve Weiler and Detective Sgt. Mike Keating, experts of “keeping the peace,” to talk about how safe we can expect to be in an unpredictable, sometimes dangerous world.
These four men are familiar with danger. Let’s just say that the clientele they work with has a little different character profile than the crowd I preached to on Christmas Eve when I was a pastor.
Regarding safety, they said that even if you put an officer on every street corner in the village, crime would persist. They recalled a time when two officers were standing next to their squad car outside Wal-Mart in an attempt to deter crime, when a shoplifter ran right past them! They caught the thief, but their presence hadn’t prevented the crime from happening.
It’s another variation on the bumper sticker wisdom that manure happens.
OK. So you accept the reality that our world is sometimes dangerous. How do you stay safe? All of Forest Park’s finest wear Kevlar vests when they are out on the street. “Do the officers think the vests will prevent them from getting killed?” I asked. “No,” replied Aftanas, “but they increase the odds.”
They told another story, this one about a shoplifter whom an officer chased and tackled. The officer did everything by the book, just as he had been trained, but as they wrestled the bad guy pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and shot the officer in the jaw. A shoplifter packing a .45!
It’s a dangerous world, and even if you live in a gated community with a security guard posted at the entrance, manure can still happen. What do you do with your fear? How do you function in a world where wolves are waiting for the weakest elk to wander away from the protection of the herd?
The four officers said they need to be constantly conscious that danger might be waiting for them behind each door on which they knock. Lieutenant Weiler called it situational awareness. On the other hand, added Aftanas, “you can’t be obsessed with it or it will drive you crazy.”
So what are we to do in Forest Park? Sign up for a martial arts class? Add another deadbolt to the back door? Go out and buy a Kevlar vest to wear to holiday parties?
There is a better way, it seems to me. The officers confirmed that domestic violence increases during the holidays. Detective Keating said it’s caused by stress over money, alcohol and unresolved relationship issues. It’s so ironic. We max out our credit cards to put a smile on everyone’s face as they open the presents and then have a couple drinks to continue the mood. But even if it doesn’t turn into domestic violence, the fantasy never lasts and the manure returns.
Our cops know something about reality and how to make peace with it. On the one hand, they have no illusions about changing the world. On the other hand, they don’t use fear as an excuse for running away from the fight. They have faced their mortality, done what they can to increase their odds of survival and get up day after day to do their small thing to make our village a better place.
When the angels sang about peace on earth to those shepherds, I’m sure they had no romantic fantasies about the birth of Jesus. Labor was still labor for Mary, and the stable smelled like a barn always smells. This wasn’t an escape from reality. This was an eyes wide open engagement with it.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.