P1 First Person: Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ Christmas Eve?
I was ready to push my kids to the floor, jump over the pew, and run toward the threat with the intention of taking it out – or die trying
This PoliceOne First Person essay is from LaMaurice Gardner, PsyD, a SRT hostage negotiator and reserve lieutenant for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Pontiac, Michigan. It was first published Dec. 22, 2011. Only the formatting has been updated. In PoliceOne “First Person” essays, our members candidly share their own unique view of the world. If you want to share your own perspective or experience with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.
By Dr. LaMaurice Gardner
What would you do if in the middle of a Catholic Mass, on one of the holiest days of the year, someone yelled out “Allahu Akbar?”
It was late Christmas Eve and my 17-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were preparing to leave for midnight Mass at Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church in Royal Oak, Michigan. The church is quite a distance from our home and the weather was bad. Worried about drunk drivers on the holiday eve, my wife was hesitant to let our newly licensed daughter drive so far so late. But our daughter was persistent and my wife gave in.
I had my own apprehensions. Having read books and attended terrorism lectures by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and John Giduck – as well as hearing from numerous Israeli and U.K. terrorist experts at IACP conferences – I was sensitive to the vulnerability of American houses of worship to terrorist attacks, especially on high-profile religious holidays. A good 10 minutes behind my kids, I decided to leave too and catch up with them for the service.
At the church, my daughter greeted me with, “What, you don’t trust me?”
I blamed my surprise attendance on my wife’s paranoia, and we all settled into my favorite pew in the back of the sanctuary. At midnight, a procession of altar boys and priests entered, followed by the executive priest, a monsignor. Mass began and the spirit of the season filled the capacity crowd.
I felt a little odd this Christmas Eve, because for the first time I was wearing a chain badge beneath my sweater. I always carry my gun off duty, a practice I learned in a Street Survival seminar 10 years ago that has been further emphasized time and again in Dave Grossman’s lectures: “Never be a sheep when you are a trained sheepdog”.
That night, I considered the chain badge added protection against possible friendly fire in case the shit hit the fan. Having seen one of my captains as well as a K-9/SRT deputy at services before, I knew I was probably not the only LEO present, not to mention veteran and active-duty servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This midnight Mass was typical of previous years: song, ceremony, apostolic readings, a reading of the gospel. After the gospel, with everyone seated both in the audience and at the altar, there was a brief lull, then suddenly, from nowhere, came a shout: “Allahu Akbar!”
My world froze
Those two words – “Allahu Akbar!” – are the common war cry of Islamic Jihadis. Immediately I went to condition orange.
One hand was on my off-duty weapon, the other prepared to push my kids to the floor for their protection. I scanned the church for a target, anticipating an imminent explosion of flying shrapnel or gunfire.
In my head, I heard my SRT sergeant’s range command echo, “Two to the head!” No thought of body shots on a suicide bomber.
When I couldn’t identify a primary target, I listened and looked for anyone in the crowd who followed suit and yelled the same homicidal chant. Everything was in slow motion and what was milliseconds seemed like minutes.
I didn’t know if the dead silence was my auditory exclusion or shock from the parishioners. All I knew was that I was a sheepdog on automatic pilot.
Then the orator of the death chant stood and identified himself: the monsignor. He followed his striking words with, “I bet you didn’t expect to hear that!”
He then went on with a homily about the greatness of God.
I didn’t hear a word that came out of his mouth for the next 10 minutes. Adrenaline rushed through my bloodstream, and my heart was racing. Not to mention I was pissed. I was ready to push my kids to the floor, jump over the pew, and run toward the perceived threat with the intention of taking it out – or die trying. I would hope that every officer/warrior at that service had also been ready to engage.
I suppose training, discipline and FATS-machine shoot/no-shoot scenarios paid off, because no aggressive action took place. The sermon went on and the sheep went on grazing. But my daughter knew. She looked at me and recognized the combat mode.
“Isn’t that what the terrorists say?” she asked.
“Yes, it is,” I responded.
I calmed myself with deep breathing and convinced myself the monsignor really didn’t understand what he had done.
Go in peace, but prepare for war
Eventually, the service ended and the monsignor said, “Go in peace.” As I left the church, I saw him at the door. I calmly explained the threatening nature of his words and suggested he try to choose his words more wisely. He just laughed off my comments and went about his way.
I guess the saying is true, “No one understands the coliseum’s ring as clearly as the gladiator.” Only those of us who have been there or who are trained to be there understand the terrorist threat we are under. I seriously doubt that anyone would have escaped with the “Allah Akbar” statement unchallenged in Israel or the UK, where sensitivity and awareness are much greater.
Although the outcome was benign, this Christmas Eve experience seems important to share for two reasons. First, to let the warriors who are protecting us overseas know that there are warriors here too, protecting your families and friends from terrorist threats on the home front. And to remind officers nationwide to be prepared. I was lucky, but I was trained and prepared in mind and body.
This time it was a false alarm. Next time it could be real. Pray for peace but prepare for war.
About the Author
LaMaurice Gardner, PsyD, is a Veterans Affairs psychologist who also serves as a psychologist for several law enforcement agencies in Michigan, including Detroit PD. He is a SRT hostage negotiator and reserve lieutenant for the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office in Pontiac, Michigan.