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Attacks on police officers must not derail the necessary process of reconciliation

If a nation can become punch-drunk by absorbing unrelenting news of mass killings, then the United States is at heightened and apparently ongoing risk. There seems to be no letup, most recently in the shocking and terrifying attacks on police officers. Indeed, these ambushes of police amount to nothing less than domestic terrorism.

The killings of three Baton Rouge, La., police officers on Sunday followed by only 10 days the murders of five officers in Dallas. A total of 12 officers were also wounded, including three in Baton Rouge. As in Dallas, police killed the shooter in Baton Rouge.

While the cop killer in Dallas was apparently pursuing a twisted agenda of vengeance for the deaths of black men at the hands of police elsewhere, the shooter in Baton Rouge, identified as Gavin Long, may have been additionally motivated by his own strange worldview, which he presented in YouTube videos and books he claimed to have written. Both of the shooters were military veterans with training that made them especially dangerous.

The motivations matter, of course. Understanding why such attacks occur may be helpful in avoiding future ones. But in terms of their impact on a shocked and saddened population, it is the raw fact of this bloodshed that is so disturbing.

And it matters that these are police officers – citizens who have taken on the critical and difficult duty of protecting and serving the public. Yes, there are bad cops who do terrible things, but there are bad actors in any profession. Most police officers want to do their jobs well, yet all officers must now wonder if someone with a demented view is hunting them. How do they protect themselves and continue to do their urgent work?

It’s not a theoretical problem. In addition to the officers already killed, police here in Buffalo discovered that a “gangbanger” known to police had posted a Facebook message advocating the killing of police officers. It may or may not have led to anything, but it was important that it was taken seriously.

Part of the answer to this problem is for residents to speak up when they get wind of any threats, including those against police. Some people with malice in mind may keep their ideas and plans entirely to themselves, but others will make them known in one way or another. Some will brag. Just as citizens sometimes need police to help them, police now need the help of the citizens they serve. They need the eyes and ears of the public.

Some observers worry that police may become reluctant to do their jobs or will become so apprehensive they lose perspective on events. Both circumstances could occur, but it would be an unwanted and unfortunate result. Police officials need to work with their officers to ensure that they are able to continue to do their critical work safely and effectively.

While the attacks may be linked in the minds of the shooters to the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police – and that is a serious issue requiring attention in police departments around the country – homicide is not the answer. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson pointedly observed, “Shooting police is not a civil rights tactic.”

The necessary work of reconciliation must not be discouraged or delayed by this latest shooting, coming so soon after the ambush in Dallas. Without it, the situation can only become worse. The fact is that we all need each other in this tense and uncertain moment. That begins with calm and competent leadership.

And it’s needed right now.

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