When I see a police car, my first thought is, Uh oh. Something bad happened. I don’t knowingly break the law and I am unaccustomed to feeling the need for protection. In other words, I knew they weren’t there for me.
So, professionally nosy, I asked the two strapping officers, one with hair, one without, what they were doing outside the building I was about to enter.
The one with hair said, “We’re here for your protection.”
I thought, My protection?
I asked, “Are you always here?”
The one with hair said, “When they ask us to be.”
I thought some thoughts.
I said, “Do you also go to the mosques?”
The one with hair said, “They don’t want us. We need to be protected from them. They’re all terrorists. They can just…”
He kept talking but I couldn’t hear.
I said, “Not all. Not many.”
The one with hair grumbled something, and the one without hair took a step toward us.
I thought, Who do I want to be in the world?
On that Monday morning, I was going to synagogue for the first time in my adult life for Rosh Hashanah services, the start of the Jewish New Year.
Until recently, my only connection to the religion into which I was born has been a sense of threat.
My great-grandfather Max, who giggled often, girlishly sweet, had numbers tattooed on his arm.
Kids in my rural, upstate New York town called me “Christ killer” and anonymous strangers spray-painted swastikas on the sidewalk in front of our house.
In my first job in publishing, I worked on a memoir by a Polish Holocaust survivor about how she and her sister, both blond-haired and light-eyed, got through the war by passing as gentiles, helped along by “Righteous Christians.”
During college dining hall conversations, the scions of robber barons took in my vanilla features and never realized that when they were talking about dirty Jews they were talking about me.
I have long known the phrase, “Tikkun olam.” It refers to acts of kindness that go toward repairing the world.
In his Baccalaureate address, my college president, who later went on to be the commissioner of baseball, quoted to us from the ancient Rabbi Tarphon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I had to look up “desist.” I have never forgotten that directive, though I’ve not always followed it.
I listened to the police officer and in that moment had to decide. Who do I want to be in the world?
I could have walked away and said nothing.
Sadly, I have done that in the past.
I could have argued.
One of my friends likes to ask people, “Has Rachel said to you yet, ‘You are completely wrong and now I’m going to list all the ways.’ ” I don’t shrink from confrontation and have few unexpressed opinions.
Instead, I took a moment, took a breath. I wanted to get it right, to respond to the police officer’s comments that Muslims “are all terrorists” in a way that represented who I want to be in the world.
I said, “I know my Muslim students are grateful for your protection. Thank you for being here. Thank you for doing your jobs.”
The one without hair smiled. Did I see relief flash on his face? The one with hair nodded and may have said, “Have a good day.”
The next morning, I posted on Facebook an account of the conversation because I believe the line I read every day in the Washington Post that “democracy dies in darkness.”
Journalists contacted me. They wanted names, descriptions, facts. One said he’d heard about an encounter I’d had outside a church. No, I said, not a church. In his piece about police insensitivity he spelled synagogue quirkily.
Another journalist asked what I’d hoped to accomplish. Did I want the officer fired?
As if it’s my business to tell anyone how to discipline employees. I sighed. I quoted to him from Justice Louis Brandeis that the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
Later, as I often do, I re-read the letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his jail cell in Birmingham: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Within a day of my Facebook post the chief of police called me. Within a week I met with internal affairs and the police ombudsman. They asked me to tell my story, listened, said it mattered.
What did I want to accomplish?
Only to continue to ask myself, and to ask that Spokane cop, and to ask everyone this question: Who do you want to be in the world?
And let that answer serve to shape our behavior.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.