What a glorious spring day! I was unaware of the local news before going out on my morning walk near my house in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia. In the back of my mind, Mr. Rogers was singing a pleasantly annoying version of “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,” when all of a sudden a helicopter started circling pretty much right over my house. Then a police car sped by. And another. And another.
I asked some sidewalk construction workers on my path: “What’s going on?” They told me: “You better just go home.” An escaped and armed prison inmate was thought to be on the loose in the neighborhood. Suddenly, around the corner about ten unmarked vehicles of various makes—some with blue strobes flashing—sped by in quick succession.
As I turned the corner to my street, I saw various police vehicles lined up directly across from my house. Armed men from a SWAT team blocked off the street and shooed me away. “Get back!”
I walked briskly away from the action—and my street—as a K-9 police team hustled in my direction.
I may be a writer. But I’m not one of those Christiane Amanpour-action-hungry journalists. Let’s just say I have the proclivity to avoid getting caught in any unpleasant crossfire if I see a bunch of intense men with automatic weapons out.
Angels Amid a Manhunt
A neighbor I had never met before had been in her driveway waiting for a cab before police told her to get indoors. She waved me towards her so I could take shelter, too.
I called my husband, who was at work, while she made her own calls. After about 15 minutes, things seemed a tad quieter, and it looked from the corner like the street was re-opened. My angel neighbor drove me the half block home, but the street was still filled with heavily armed police and vehicles and a TV news van. We took in the sight with awe. The helicopter continued circling above.
She dropped me off as I thanked her profusely and hopped inside.
In a mundane moment in the aftermath, I wondered: How could I not have gotten a photo of the action by my house? Not even one personal souvenir of the scene with the news, trooper, police, and SWAT vehicles? I used to earn so many eye rolls from family and friends for my obsession with documenting every experience in life from every angle.
It’s amazing how a little adrenaline can put the kibosh on such things.
Self-Examination in Our Personal 9/11 Moments
It’s been several hours since the inmate was taken into custody, several miles away. Thank God, the manhunt ended with no injuries. I’m peering out of the window at the serenity of my street and its “return to normalcy.” And I realize, yet again, that normalcy is always an illusion that can be punctured at any moment.
We all have our share of these “personal 9/11 witness moments”—our close calls and near misses, or, like my experience today, a little excitement that at the time felt like a possible brush with death. It could be other types of crises that mercifully pass—for example, getting a reassuring test result at the doctor’s office or finding a lost child.
Unfortunately, amnesia usually sets in shortly after these moments of relief. We feel thankful, then tend to go straight back to our illusions of normalcy. Back to our little ambitions, squabbles, and diversions. Back to searching for the proverbial sand in which to sink our collective heads.
Just consider how our nation seems to have pretty much forgotten the existential war 9/11 triggered. Our leadership barely blinked an eye recently when ISIS militants rounded up and summarily beheaded 21 Christians on the shores of Tripoli. Instead, the masses increasingly turn their attention to the diversions of pop culture idols and demagogues, obeying their every command, whether it be to organize a protest against upscale fashion designers for saying something someone doesn’t like, or to boycott a state like Indiana for allowing its residents to live out a faith some people don’t like.
Crystallizing Moments Should Breed Crystallized Questions
When conflict comes to our doorstep, it’s a great moment to reflect on questions that are not only practical, but also spiritual. I came up with a couple in light of this latest experience.
First, the practical questions. Once indoors, the first such question I asked myself, considering reports of a violent and armed convict on the loose nearby, was this one: “What about personal security?” Well, yeah. I mean if someone armed and dangerous breaks into your house, the police generally can’t do anything before you can.
This question takes even greater urgency when we look at the mob mentality of those in Indiana who are essentially protesting the First Amendment. As governors cave to the “perceptions” of these organized packs, one can only wonder if in the future we’re more likely to face angry mobs than lone gunmen. Could governments—backed up by a cultish following of citizens who join in trendy rallies to call for boycotting First Amendment rights—end up consolidating so much power that they could freely persecute those who express their principles and faith? This is a fair and sober question, considering the climate. Sadly, it also clarifies that only the Second Amendment can protect the First.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Next, the more spiritual question: Who is my neighbor? Perhaps this doesn’t work for a lot of folks who cling to the sentiment now so freely expressed in opposition to religious freedom and to traditional religion. But it’s a critical question today. This is the question asked of Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which He urged us to love our neighbor, to show mercy to others.
My neighbor is not only my literal neighbor who offered me shelter at a time of some anxiety. My neighbor was also the guy on the construction crew who informed me of the situation and advised me to head home. And the SWAT team guy shooing me to a safer place. We have a host of neighbors around us—individuals whose paths cross ours every day, for whatever reason.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, my neighbor is the escaped inmate. Unfortunately, if I had had a gun, I would have felt compelled to shoot anyone armed who suddenly and violently entered my home at such a moment. This hypothetical scenario upsets me intensely.
What Happens When We Isolate People from Meaning
It upsets me because I realize that the prisoner did not arrive at his situation in life through wholeness. He could have only gotten there through brokenness, just the way anyone else gets to that place. It doesn’t happen to people whose sense of worth from childhood was nurtured in a secure home where they learn love and goodwill. No, it happens through broken homes, fatherlessness, broken families, and through the perceived absence of any church or sanctuary where people are free to seek and express what they know to be real Truth.
Without such places of hope, where people can come together and try to make sense of the world and their place in it, there is despair. If you then take away civil society, which gives us the freedom to express our joy and witness our faith with others, you multiply that despair in a society.
These failures comprise the crumbled foundation upon which broken communities, broken schools, and broken institutions are built. All are incapable of respecting the dignity of the individual and the freedom of individual expression that is necessary for pursuing real happiness. Loneliness and isolation thrive in these cold places—the perfect climate for an individual to lose his way so dramatically, and for a cult mindset among the many to take hold and help erase individuals’ dignity and worth by erasing individual rights. Thus we sow a lot of discord and misery, often in the name of “peace.”
My neighbor can only be an individual. My neighbor is decidedly not the State, and my neighbor is not a cult. But my neighbor is even the conformist who shouts down religious freedom laws as a pawn of the centralized state, because I know that, somewhere along the way, he or she took refuge in groupthink through a failure of love and mercy. We need to learn anew the best ways to get to know our neighbors as individuals and be free to share both love and truth with them.
That’s what I re-learned today from the helicopters, SWAT teams, and neighbors. In that sense, it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.