A stark reminder of the difference between cops, soldiers and civilians
Several weeks ago I was at a critique circle reading one of my true cop stories, “Just Another Night on Smith Street”. It’s about a shooting outside a club in a bad part of town.
The way this critique circle works, everyone brings their piece, every member reads each piece and writes comments, then when everyone’s done the group discusses each piece. In my piece, I related many vivid details of the shooting. I was at the station when the shooting call came in, and in the story I mentioned something I said before I went to the call:
“I looked at the other two officers, smiled and said ‘I don’t wanna go.’ Then I ran out the door to my car and sped away.”
I didn’t think that part of the story was a big deal. It was just part of the overall incident, one tiny bit of an extremely memorable experience. Since I was at a critique circle, I expected my story to be criticized and torn apart by the other writers there; I get valuable advice from every critique and make significant changes based on that advice. And I got plenty of comments that night. But I wasn’t prepared for one of them.
As we went over my piece, a very good writer mentioned the part where I said I didn’t want to go. He asked, “I don’t get this part. If you didn’t want to go, why did you go?”
I was dumbfounded. I actually stammered a little as I tried to answer him.
“I…uh…I had to…I mean…I’m a cop. I really…I don’t have a choice.”
At this point, two other writers piped up. “I didn’t understand that either. Why’d you go?”
One of the three had even written the comment on my piece:
We had a discussion about it. I tried, and failed, to explain that it was my duty. I guess we cops have a choice not to act, but our sense of duty makes us head toward danger. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I failed to act when I was expected to. My cop and military friends are the same way.
After a few minutes discussion, I told the other writers, “I’m actually shocked at this comment. I never expected anyone to ask why police have to go to dangerous scenes.” But I don’t think I made them understand a sense of duty.
I can look back on many instances where I and the people around me headed into danger, because it was our duty. The very scary convoy when my team delivered Iraq’s first election ballots into Najaf, a week after we arrived in country. The night I had to clear an alley by myself, after I found a man shot in the head outside a club and witnesses said, “The shooter ran into that alley.” The morning I rode into a raging firefight with other silent, tense soldiers in the back of an armored vehicle, listening as other Americans yelled for help over the radio. The night I walked up to what I thought was a roadside bomb in Iraq, because my convoy was stopped right next to it and I had to. The many times I got out of my police car shaking, because I was scared of the fight I knew I was about to get into. It wasn’t bravery, it wasn’t heroism. It just had to be done. It was our duty. Not doing it was as unthinkable as a mother refusing to run into traffic to grab her toddler.
The writers who made that comment weren’t stupid or evil; they were well-educated, and one was a college professor. All were good, decent people. One I had just met, one was a very nice woman who I don’t know well, and one was a good guy who I consider a friend. They’re all talented writers. But I guess in their vision of my world, when dispatch says “We just got a shooting call, you need to go,” I can just answer, “Nah, I’ll pass. I’m not feeling it tonight.” And I have to ask, who do they think is going to handle these problems? Who is going to catch murderers, or fight back against enemies who want to attack us? Do they have any idea what the world is really like?
I’m not insulting or demeaning the other writers in any way. But this conversation was a shock, and an eye opener. I learned something at that critique meeting.
I learned that only a select few of us really understand what a sense of duty is. The rest of the country just doesn’t get it. This is why so many people can’t understand why we cops perform such a crappy job for crappy pay, or why we soldiers repeatedly risk our lives in what many view as pointless wars.
I write about that sense of duty. But I don’t know that it’s understood by anyone who didn’t understand it already. And to tell you the truth, that depresses the hell out of me.
Filed under: Writing | 73 Comments
Tags: critique cricles, duty, veteran writers