Tragedy reminder of life's fragility

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

It was a funeral for a man whom I did not know, and I suspect I wasn't alone.

We were there out of respect for a fallen police officer. At the conclusion of the service, I knew a lot more about Senior Police Officer Elmer "Buddy" Christian than I'd really like to know -- like how his senseless murder took a father from 5-year-old Callie and 2-year-old Wyatt.

They must grow up never understanding why they lost, in heinous fashion, a father who lived with a commitment to extend goodwill to others. If you are like me, you are damned angry about the circumstances of Buddy Christian's murder, but somehow or other I have the notion that if he could speak to us, he would call for tolerance and forgiveness.

All during the standing-room-only service at the Athens Classic Center, there were flashbacks to familiar headlines in other locales. While novel for Athens, police officers being taken by violent crime is not an uncommon occurrence in this country. Police officers often lose their lives for one simple reason -- they must contend with a culture of crime with which most of us have no comprehension and, mercifully, no contact. Our lives seldom adjoin the seamy side of our communities, but it is a daily exposure for law enforcement officers.

Our society is not without responsibility when these tragedies occur. We cannot avoid the question -- what did we do to aid and abet the environment that spawns men like Jamie Hood, who surrendered when surrounded only if he could be assured he would not be hurt? OK for him to take an innocent life, but, curiously, he lobbied for protection for his own because the judicial system allows for such.

Murderers have always been cowards.

It took a while to get everybody seated for the service, owing to the fact that there were so many police officers finding their way into the packed Classic Center theater. For every one of us, there seemed to be a uniformed officer in attendance -- the fraternity saying goodbye to one of its own. The pretty, brunette pianist played hymns which Buddy had sung as a deacon at the nearby Hull Baptist Church. When she played "How Great Thou Art," it elicited soft sobs, a reminder that we should not resort to reverence and humility only when there is tragedy.

A distraught Joseph H. Lumpkin Sr., Athens-Clarke County police chief, rendered a heartfelt eulogy, his halting delivery interrupted by the occasional wiping away of tears. The humility and sincerity of his remarks were a tribute born of the brotherly love and bonding that altruistic police officers have for one another.

Those who mourned came in modest suits and ties, some in shirtsleeves -- casual and informal but deeply respectful. Restless babes in arms whimpered intermittently, unaware that someday they may be protected in a free society by men like Buddy Christian, men who are imbued with the belief that they can make a difference by serving their communities in law enforcement. There were mourners in black, and many black mourners; there were young mourners and mourners walking with canes. Men, women and children. Every face, somber and solemn, reflected pain.

You can quickly make the case that Buddy Christian was a great American. You don't have to be a congressman or a senator or a millionaire or a Nobel Prize winner to be a great American. What it takes to be a great American is to honor God, flag and country. Do right by your family and your fellow man with a commitment to integrity, goodwill and service. Buddy Christian was that kind of man. This tragedy reminds us that life is fragile, and, for some, inequitable. We hurt for this fallen hero and most especially for his family. We cry for justice and a retreat from violence.

But, as Buddy Christian would likely have reminded us, it is not a time for hate.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.