December 27, 2014, Phoenix- When I was 18, and working at the General Electric Company’s Riverworks, in Lynn, MA, word came up the pipes that one of our town’s favourite police officers, Augustine J. “Gus” Belmonte, had been slain, while busting up a robbery attempt at a Saugus restaurant. Rumours flew about that it was an execution, ordered by this or that Mob boss. Gus was a man of the people, and enforced the law in an even-handed, humane manner. It turned out that the killers were Irish-American thugs, but not tied to any crime family, per se. All Saugus turned out to see Gus off to his place in Heaven.
I was a jerk-wad kid, back then, and probably struck a lot of people as being barely able to tie my own shoelaces, but I thought the world of Augustine J. Belmonte. He was in the prime of his life, forty-four years of age, when the Lord called him home.
Fast forward, nearly forty-six years later, to Flagstaff, AZ. Tyler Stewart, a young man from north Phoenix, serving in his first year as a police officer on the Flagstaff force, responded to a domestic violence call, in one of the mountain town’s few tough neighbourhoods. The perp got the officer’s confidence by seeming to be polite and co-operative, then got the drop on Officer Stewart. Tyler Stewart was 24.
Flagstaff is a university community, a ski resort and an outdoorsman’s year-round paradise. The San Francisco Peaks, an alpine sky city, loom to the north and smaller peaks like Mount Elden, Mars Hill and Kendrick Peak beckon to hikers and runners, as well. It is also a railroad town, as anyone seeking a good night’s sleep in any of the motels along Old U.S. 66 can attest. Drifters and the troubled find their way here, en route to or from California or Las Vegas, and many stay. Robert Smith, who killed Officer Stewart before turning the gun on himself, was one of those troubled souls. He was 28.
While this transpired, on a sunny Saturday-after-Christmas, I was in a faith-based conference in Phoenix, learning of systemic alternatives to greed, rapacity and vengeance. It occurred to those of us who heard of this incident, over dinner, that there is, when people feel utterly trapped, and at the mercy of wolves, so to speak-they revert to savagery, however tempered by cunning that it may be.
We often worry about high-profile catastrophe: Mass murders, such as the Twin Towers, Newtown or Peshawar; missing and ill-fated airplanes, of which there have been three this year; or almost incomprehensible global phenomena, such as the Mega-Tsunami of ten years ago, Friday. The more common tragedy is, collectively, like death by a thousand cuts. Four police officers have been killed, in the line of duty, over the past two months. Some blame an obscure street gang, which has “declared war” on police. To date, that group has not carried out any of its threats. The deaths which have occurred, are all random results of a torn social fabric. The mentally ill, from unrestrained sociopaths to schiziphrenics, who are shunted aside by the hipsters and the Men of Purpose, have, in each case, been shown to be the perpetrators.
While there is no conspiracy, there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Registration of firearms, as appealing and, in many cases, necessary as it is, resolves only a small part of the problem. It has not been that many years since I had to explain to my then-teenaged son how it was that a schizoid man could behead his own flesh and blood, and toss the head out of his moving truck, onto a highway full of horrified commuters. No human being can long be made to feel that he or she is irrelevant to the very people in whom trust has been placed. The rest of us will soon have to bear the full cost, and dollars are a very small part of that cost- as everyone who has tried to make mental health care all about the money has learned, to their chagrin.
In a couple of days, most of us will assess this departed year and gaze ahead at the broad horizon of anno novo. The sunrise and sunset will appear the same. Perhaps somewhere, an overloaded ferry, in a far-off place, will be the first reported disaster. The jails will be full of those who over-celebrated. In New York City, a young widow will wake up alone, and two fatherless boys will look at the empty dining-room chair, where their father used to sit. In the Anthem neighbourhood of Phoenix, a veteran State Police officer will look out the window, and tears will stream down his face- as he wonders “Why MY son?”. even as he knows the answer, full-well. In the Old Town section of Flagstaff, a young woman will also wake up, without the man she thought she could trust, and hopefully not blame herself.
Life is beautiful, under the shadow of the Peaks, and it is also grim.