How a society reacts to an outrage, or even how a society judges an event an outrage, is revealing.
Those reactions express core values more accurately than nearly any other metric.
They go beyond the bluster and ambiguity often offered as a principled position. They show us who we are and what we care about even if the occasion of that articulation means tragedy has visited an individual, a family, or a community.
Tragedy visited Detective Garda Colm Horkan, his family, friends, colleagues, community, and the society he served for 24 years when he was shot dead while on duty in Castlerea, Co Roscommon late on Wednesday night.
That Garda Commissioner Drew Harris described the murder as a “a random act” exacerbates that sense of tragedy.
That Mr Harris ruled out any link with terrorism or organised crime; that the shooting took place near Castlerea Garda Station after Det Gda Horkan stopped his car and a scuffle ensued with a man, during which the man took the detective’s gun and shot him 15 times, just adds a sense of great waste to the tragedy.
It may go some very small way to assuage the grief felt by those close to Det Gda Horkan that this society spoke with one voice when his murder was universally condemned.
President Michael D Higgins reflected the country’s mood: “As President of Ireland I wish to express my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the Garda, and to all those who have been affected by this tragedy... An Garda Síochána play a crucial role in our communities and this loss of life is traumatic for our society as a whole... ”
It is too early to look for the silver lining in this cloud but there is one, at least for society in general. The reaction to Det Gda Horkan’s death stands in stark contrast to how America is reacting to the persistent, racist excesses of its heavily-armed, almost paramilitary police forces.
The unnecessary deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, many others too, have defined many of America’s police officers, some barely held to account, as part of that country’s age-old problem rather than part of the solution.
Here, our police force, despite the occasional, sometimes nasty tiff, is seen very much as an essential part of the community — a reality naysayers cannot deny because of the genuine, heartfelt reaction to Det Gda Horkan’s death. We should not undervalue the circumstances, dynamics, or personal commitments at the foundation of that relationship.
Next month, on July 7, the 40th anniversary of another garda tragedy will be marked when Det Gda John Morley and Garda Henry Byrne will be remembered.
They were also based in Castlerea, but were shot dead by bank raiders outside Loughglynn. Had they been better resourced they might not have died in our name. Unfortunately, 40 years later, the same question arises.
Why was a single guard on midnight duty even if in what is usually a sleepy town?
Did he die, like those in the Mayo helicopter tragedy, because resources were unequal to the demands made on them? Detective Horkan served us well, but how well did we serve him?
After all, a properly resourced police force can better protect itself — and this society too. Let’s learn the obvious lesson.