Police Slayings: Our Pain Becomes Our Poison

After Police Slayings, One Asks: What is Our Night?

Editor’s note: This column, written in response to the 2016 murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, was originally published July 27, 2016 in the York Daily Record.

Imagine waking up to a fog of pure blackness. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and there’s night all around. You’ve risen from bed and stand ready to charge ahead, toward another workday, expecting daylight to brighten the skies just as it did the day before. Yet, there is only the curtain of night.

Only in The Twilight Zone could such an unimaginable scenario become imaginable. Those familiar with Rod Sterling’s surreal anthology know of the rich trove of allegories. From Death posing as a hitchhiker to an accident victim (“The Hitch-hiker”) to a witch hunt unfolding in a suburban neighborhood beset by small-town hysteria (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), Sterling’s catalogue explores the depth of man’s fears and the magnitude of his faults. Of all the entries, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black” is my favorite from the collection.

For those who haven’t seen this episode, I strongly recommend that you do. The narrative follows the final days of a condemned man convicted of murder. On the morning of the man’s execution, darkness replaces daylight in the small town. The town’s newspaper editor arrives at the sheriff’s station to interview the murderer – a self-described “bad guy” – who has no regrets about taking the life of a racist tormentor.

A crowd of eager spectators show up to witness the execution, including the newspaperman and a town reverend. The reverend, a black man, speaks to the condemned man, who is unrepentant even in his final moments. “I know it all too well,” says the reverend, searching the man’s heart. “You’re guilty.” The man rebukes the reverend for siding with the majority opinion. Recognizing that injustice cannot be repaid with injustice, the reverend laments: “the minority must have died on the cross, 2,000 years ago.”

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A reverend (Ivan Dixon), left, and a newspaperman (Paul Fix), right, speculate about the source of the town’s night.

When he is finally hanged, there is no solace. There is no satisfaction in schadenfreude and little comfort in revenge – only horror. Talking to the speechless gawkers, the reverend explains the source of their night. “It’s the hate he felt. The hate you felt. The hate all of us feel.” As more darkness smothers the town, the townsfolk begin to realize that they are the night. Hate, like personal poison, can never be contained. It festers inside us, bubbles to the surface and darkens our vision.

Returning to the station after the execution, the newspaperman, the wearied sheriff and his deputy contemplate the day’s events. As they turn on the radio, they realize that night has also descended upon other places of hate around the world: West Berlin, Vietnam, Birmingham, Chicago, and in Dallas. Dallas, at the time, was where an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of a charismatic president. The wounds of history would be reopened decades later, in much the same way, again in Dallas.

It seems, sometimes, that night is followed only by night; hate reciprocated by hate. But in the deluge of darkness, eyes cannot discriminate between black and white, or, I dare say, black bodies and blue uniforms. In the deluge, we seek only the outline of our fellow man. In the deluge, our own insecurities become abundantly clear to us, as we fumble and seek the touch of others. “In the darkest times,” tweeted actress Rashida Jones in response to the shootings in Dallas, “we must love even harder.”

It might be more reassuring if there were some mystical explanation. Perhaps, the darkness would be more tolerable if it were the act of a divine power or the result of some incursion by extraterrestrial forces. Instead, it so happens that we are the source. We are all hurting over the loss of black lives as well as the loss of blue lives. It should suffice to say we grieve the loss of all human life. As we wrestle with our pain, we guard it just as well, because suffering is no great leap from hate. And hate, when it boils and brews, spills into our streets and byways, with malice like that displayed in Dallas and, most recently, in Baton Rouge.

That is the nature of our country’s unprecedented “crisis,” as hailed by cynical pundits and a certain presidential candidate. However, these challenges, while doing nothing to diminish the emotional toll, are not unique to our time and certainly not unconquerable. Our country has faced racial tension and violence. The 1920s, with the explosion of organized crime fueled by Prohibition, was one of the deadliest decades for law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. In that same decade, our country also witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of its “Invisible Empire.” The challenges of today, as painful as they are, must be treated with caution and perspective, as to not inflame the wound.

At what point does our pain become our poison? At what point does hate begin to seep into our lives? The hate felt by those cop-killers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was the result of a hurt shared by many in this country. It spilled over and became our night.

I remember the terrifying feeling of waking up to more night, the night after those five officers were killed in Dallas. I have become wary of the night, just as a small child is wary of the unseen monsters lurking in his closet. It is the intimate fear of an imaginative threat. Maybe the monsters will never leave that vault. Maybe the darkness will never fully descend over the waking world. Still, the child will be in a state of constant worry each fretful night, always imagining what abominable beasts may be prowling. Only, it is hate, begotten of suffering and lurking within the soul, which occupies my fears.