Walking Into Fire

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has begun talking about security camera video of the Tucson shootings.  As described in the New York Times, the video shows Jared Loughner marching up to Representative Gabrielle Giffords and shooting her in the face, then turning his weapon on the crowd.  Here is how investigator Richard Kastigar describes the final moments of Judge John Roll’s life:

“Mr. Kastigar said Judge Roll was ‘intentionally trying to help [Giffords aide Ronald] Barber,’ adding, ‘It’s very clear to me the judge was thinking of his fellow human more than himself.’

The judge guides Mr. Barber to the ground, shields him with his body, and then tries to push himself and Mr. Barber away from the gunman, who was no more than three to four feet away as he fired, Mr. Kastigar said.

‘He pushes Mr. Barber with his right hand and guides him with his left hand. The judge was on top of him and is covering up Mr. Barber, literally lying on top of him, and his back was exposed,’ Mr. Kastigar said.

The judge was shot in the back.”

Mr. Barber survived, and is currently listed in good condition at University Medical Center in Tucson.  Sadly, Judge Roll did not survive his act of heroism.  He wasn’t even an official part of the event held in the parking lot of the Safeway supermarket that day.  He had just dropped by to say hello, after attending Mass on that fine Saturday morning.

What does it take to hear the sudden crack of gunfire, and instantly respond by pushing another man to safety, shielding his body with your own?  How can mere words capture the true dimensions of such a mighty soul?

There has been much speculation about the tortured recesses of Jared Loughner’s mind over the past week.  Some have made disgusting efforts to use him as a political cudgel against their enemies.  Others are preoccupied with honest efforts to understand what made him snap.  For my part, I don’t find him that much of a mystery.  He is a servant of anti-civilization, the deranged and merciless impulse to destroy a culture he judged alien and corrupt.  It is the same bloody heat that inflames the minds of terrorist footsoldiers, and all but the most calculating of their leaders. 

Loughner was obsessed with the paranoid delusions retailed in the now-infamous film Zeitgeist, including 9/11 conspiracy theories.  To believe sincerely in such things is to move outside of the civilized world, which becomes an incomprehensible mechanism of conspiracy and evil.  The light of civilization is beyond endurance to those who choose to live in such deep shadows.

It’s Judge John Roll who surpasses my understanding.  He’s the one we should be trying to figure out.

Civilization is built upon the deeds of men and women who were willing to walk into fire.  Killing to enforce your will is easy.  Self-preservation is instinct.  Thoughtless sacrifice in the face of sudden danger reveals the eternal strength which elevates men over savages and beasts.

On that bloody Saturday in Tucson, a respected 63-year-old jurist with a wife and three adult children, who had received hundreds of his own death threats, invested the last seconds of his life in a desperate bid to preserve another’s.  A lifetime could be spent searching for the place in your own heart where such love and courage are stored.  Finding it would be worth any number of years dedicated to the quest… which John Roll completed in a matter of seconds.

How many lost souls would be saved, if we could transmit the true essence of Roll’s spirit?  How much villainy would dissipate if the low creatures of the Earth truly understood the nature of the champions ready to face them?  Perhaps the cynicism of our age would drain away if we knew just how many of those champions walk among us, hidden beneath pleasantly ordinary lives.  For now, we must content ourselves with adding one more jewel to America’s fantastic treasury of patriotism, compassion, and valor.  We should speak of that treasure often, and share it with our children.

Jared Loughner thought he spied the tip of the Devil’s tail, and drowned while tracing its length through the murky depths of fear and hatred.  Some will be charged with the unhappy but vital duty of spotting others like him in the future, before their madness becomes fatal.  For the rest of us, there is nothing but sorrow to gain by single-mindedly following his course.  Follow the life and deeds of Judge John Roll instead, and be elevated.

We spend far too much time gaping at monsters.  We should study our heroes more carefully.