Killings must be condemned

Published 11:08 am Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Northern Ireland, 1979. On a wet, chilly Sunday morning, my wife, three sons and I were attending church in the village of Markethill. Just seven miles away was the city of Armagh where St. Patrick founded his church in 444 A.D. Yes, this part of Ireland oozes history — but also something else, a fact made apparent when I posed a question to a church member.

There was a stunning stained glass window near the altar, bathing the front pews in muted shades of red, purple, and gold. All the other church windows were plain glass. “Why only the one stained glass window?” I asked. “Oh, that,” replied the man. “All the others were blown out by the recent car bomb — only makes sense to replace them with plain glass till the troubles die down.”

That same Sunday morning another man was taking his family to church a few miles away.

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Stanley Wray was a policeman — but obviously not in uniform, instead dressed in his Sunday best and walking to church hand in hand with his two children. He never made it to the front door. He was shot in the back — twice —by terrorists, crumpling to the ground as his horrified children stood helplessly by.

A few years later I wrote about another church killing in The Pittsburgh Press. My words were so graphic that the article prompted a reply from Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald.

“Pretty Mary Travers could be..your daughter. Mary is 22 years old, just out of college and lives in Belfast. Correction. Mary doesn’t live in Belfast anymore. She’s dead…The bullets were meant for Dad, a judge…Sis and Mom just got in the way…Two Irish Republican Army gunmen opened fire as Tom, Joan, and Mary strolled along tree-lined Malone Avenue after attending morning Mass at St. Bridget’s.”

“Catholics killing Catholics? Yes. The term is Castle Catholic, meaning an Irish Uncle Tom. Catholic judges in Northern Ireland, aiding the enemy in IRA eyes, move to the top of the hit list.”

Targeted killing of policemen is now occurring in this country. As the front line of our legal system — those who man the volatile interface with lawbreakers — police are the most visible and vulnerable elements of that system. A mounting resentment of authority is a troubling trend that could extend targeted killings further up the legal hierarchy.

The worst scenario would be lawbreakers targeting lawmakers. Short of that, judges — if seen as symbols and agents of a discriminatory legal system—could be in the crosshairs. Even the prospect of such a scenario should prompt — or scare — our political class to speak out in strong support of law enforcement. Deadly disregard for police authority, let alone the judiciary, would be a first step to an anarchy that would most likely fester in inner city pockets of poverty, crime and boarded-up buildings.

Equally important is public disclosure and proper prosecution when police or other legal enforcers truly do discriminate or use excessive force. The system must be seen as fair and even-handed to keep that volatile interface with the public calm. It will take years in some cities for the image of Officer Friendly — and respect for the system he or she represents — to be restored.

Though the IRA officially disarmed a decade ago, a recent Belfast assassination was described as an “IRA-linked murder.” When Bobby Storey, an alleged terrorist turned politician, was arrested (but then released) in connection with that murder, he made a fleeting reference to the IRA as “a butterfly.” Ann Travers, sister of the murdered judge’s daughter, was one of many relatives of IRA victims who deeply resented Storey’s statement. Ann said she sees a butterfly as “a spiritual sister is thinking of me” and called Storey’s insidious wink-and-nod analogy as “quite tasteless.”

Targeted killing of policemen is Northern Ireland was carried out by a terrorist organization, not by individuals acting on their own. The near-silence from our national leadership needs to be replaced with vigorous condemnation of such killings and equally vigorous support of our law enforcers. Otherwise, the current resentment of authority could metastasize into IRA-type organized killings. We don’t want that implanted in any group’s DNA. We want law and order, not law and disorder.