Remember the Fallen, Delicately

Last Thursday I was in Oregon City on business and had just turned the car onto the main road heading back to the office in Portland. I sat in the car waiting at an intersection, watching the windshield catch a light drizzle. Something was happening on the road ahead, as we weren’t moving. I soon noticed a couple of police motorcycles parked in the middle of my lane, their blue and red lights flashing quietly. Nothing was happening at all – until a few police motorcycles roared by at top speed – cutting through the silence and disappearing to my left leaving a wake of sirens blaring. A few more motorcycles followed – just as quickly – preceding a momentary silence. Then I watched unfold before me the floodgates which spilled forth what had to be one hundred police motorcycles passing piled up motorists gawking on both sides. 

Next, a helicopter descended from the heavens above pausing momentarily near my position at the precise moment that a shiny black vehicle appeared and then quickly disappeared, followed by police cars and black Suburbans trailing. The circling helicopter followed in the air as an ambulance, some more police cars, and even more motorcycles followed on the ground. I thought it could be none other than Barack Obama visiting this little suburb south of Portland! I hadn’t heard of a presidential visit and was momentarily stunned. To my left, I noticed for the first time a very large American flag hanging between two outstretched fire truck ladders that soared over the street as the procession flowed on the pavement below. More police cars. More ambulances. Then about twenty fire trucks drove by in tight formation.

Clearly this traffic jam was more than I could have guessed when those first motorcycles blocked my way so long ago. My car hadn’t moved an inch in the last ten minutes when I found a local news report on the radio, catching only the last half of a sentence describing a “funeral procession.”  Oh, now that you mention it, the shiny black vehicle did look like a hearse, so that makes sense. But I couldn’t imagine who would command such solemn opulence other than John F. Kennedy himself.

More time passed and the flood of police cars continued interspersed occasionally with a fire truck, some ambulances and other sorts of emergency vehicles. They seemed to have arrived from every city.  I sat in the car for 45 minutes. There was no end, they just kept coming until the last trickle of the flood of flashing lights passed and the road was finally reopened and traffic.

About this time I finally found a radio newscast reporting that this was the motorcade procession for fallen Oregon City Police Officer Rob Libke who had been killed in the line of duty earlier this month. I hadn’t heard of the tragedy, nor did I realize the entire region would be mobilizing this day to remember a fallen comrade.

I respect the work of police officers and intend no disrespect to the police in general or Officer Libke and his family, but this is unacceptable. The mobilization of hundreds of law enforcement personnel through the public way for a non-emergency, while probably costing the taxpayers a fortune, also has the misfortune of untold consequences in the immobilization of thousands of disregarded bystanders.  A memorial is good. Remembering is good. Even a procession is good –  but not at such a great cost to everyone else. I was only inconvenienced, but others may have been suffocated. Considering the public’s right to choose not to participate, the procession through the city could have been more delicate. 

While I was patiently waiting, I saw in my mirror an old man get out of the car behind me. He started wandering around. He seemed really confused and just left his car and walked away. I could imagine that some emergency might be taking place on the sidelines of this procession, and there’s nowhere to go. Is there a woman in labor unable to get to a hospital? Are there children peeing their pants? Am I going to pee my pants? Is this old man going to have a heart attack? He probably went to find a restroom.

Finally getting back on the road, I drove for a mile or so before hitting another log jam. Stopped like a normal day in Los Angeles. The procession advanced northward following I-205 then I-84 west into downtown Portland where the memorial service was to take place. This was the exact route I planned to take, so I had to reroute to avoid trailing. Traffic was so backed up in all directions that cars just sat like they had been parked for days. If it hadn’t been raining, more people would have been out of their cars socializing.

Sitting with the car in Park and the radio on, I listened to the host take calls from people at the scene. Drivers stuck in traffic called to say they were stuck in traffic and that they support the sacrifice this officer. The motorcade was such a wonderful thing. Others called in from the overpasses where they watched from above. Some had brought their children along, probably waving flags and signs, and used the moment as a teaching lesson to the honor those serving the country.

They all sounded the same, until one woman called to say this is a bunch of baloney and a waste of money. The enraged host didn’t even let her finish and pretty much bit her head off as he hung up on her. The subsequent callers for the next hour spent just as much time describing her as the devil himself as they did in paying respects to the fallen officer. They said it doesn’t matter how much something like this costs. How can you think about that right now?

The caller was the lone voice of dissent but didn’t show any sensitivity. However, she has the right to voice her opinion, and the host and the others have the right to hate her for it, I suppose.  But let’s separate hate from sound economics. What happened this day had nothing to do with a fallen hero and everything to do with public exploitation. Sadly this is an analogy for how our country does most things. Spending other people’s money and time while caught up with emotions, reverence, and patriotism, the true costs of any action are disregarded. Choices are made because it’s worth it damn it, or that’s what he would have wanted. Those who say otherwise are burned alive. The moment, this very short-sighted moment defeats the weight of all the rest of time.

The old man behind me was Sumner’s Forgotten Man. Many hypothetical people were forgotten simply because they are hypothetical to people looking at their own nose. The pregnant woman sobbing in labor pains was forgotten. The boy with a gushing leg wound who couldn’t get to the hospital in his mom’s minivan was forgotten. The man trying to arrive at a job interview on time, was late. He didn’t get the job. He was forgotten. The thousands of people on the freeways and side streets who have no real interest in these proceedings, though not malicious or disrespectful, are just trying to go about their day – and they are forgotten. 

I salute Oregon City Officer Rob Libke for his sacrifice in serving his community, taking action to respond to a threat and to possibly save lives. But I don’t think he would be any less respected or memorialized if he had been remembered more delicately.

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