After the tragic shooting of Butler University police officer James L. Davis on campus last Friday, several students responded to newspaper reporters with sadness, remorse and puzzlement about what could be done to prevent incidents like this.
The article that first appeared in The Indianapolis Star on Friday, Sept. 24 cites the mayor, who refers to the incident as “a senseless act of violence.” Neither this nor any of the subsequent articles, however, allude to the mystery that led to two men’s deaths. The articles don’t instigate any line of inquiry, and they don’t tell us anything about the other man, 26-year-old Khadir al-Khattab, besides the fact that he was a near Northside resident and that he was wanted on an outstanding warrant related to a battery charge.
If there is one thing that thoughtful Americans might have learned in the last few years, it is the danger of closing down stories based on preliminary information. I wonder if we could use this period when we are still disturbed about the incidents of last Friday as an opportunity to think about what occurred between the time that al-Khattab was asked to leave Hinkle Fieldhouse and when officer Davis was fatally shot.
We could start here: Thinking of al-Khattab as a man does not take away from the sense of devastation, from the sadness that the family and friends of Davis must feel, or from the fact that Davis acted to the best of his judgment and ability as an officer and as an individual.
Officer Davis invested many of his years in providing support and alternatives to at-risk youth. In college he was engaged in criminal justice and Afro-American studies. In his honor we might do his last story more justice. By reducing the incident to criminal versus cop, by thinking of it as just another “senseless act of violence,” we have done an injustice to Davis, to al-Khattab and, indeed, to ourselves and our community.
So what is there that might be “mysterious”? How has the story been closed down, written off?
We can start by looking at what we have been told of this story and what we have not been told.
For those of us who did not know Davis, reporters have given us enough information to make us weak with sympathy and sorrow. What do we know about al-Khattab? The reports of what happened that morning are unclear. We know al-Khattab wandered into the field house. He stayed for about 40 minutes, asked for a ball and was asked to leave. He spoke outside with a police officer; there was a shot. Al-Khattab was seen reaching to the ground for a gun. He ran and was apprehended two and a half hours later with Davis’ gun. He reportedly “reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a firearm, firing once.” Now he is dead.
The article in The Star devotes far more space to what kind of neighborhood Butler-Tarkington is and what the neighbors and students were doing. WTHR News reported on Saturday, the day after the shooting, “We’re learning more about the man who gunned down that officer,” but described only how he was identified on a street and how he was shot, after firing at the sheriff’s detectives in the “manhunt.”
If, in a matter of hours, The Indianapolis Star reporters could find a picture of al-Khattab, they surely could have found other information about him. Are we — this is crucial — afraid to know that someone who made a grave and horrendous mistake was a person, with a family, with a past, with dreams and aspirations?
Instead of reporting nothing about him, The Star could have used an interview from 1996 with several children belonging to a Hispanic-Muslim group. Al-Khattab, then a teen-ager, was one of them. We learn that he attended a small, parochial private school, Masjid Al-Fajr, which translated from the Arabic means “the school of knowledge.” He indicates that because of his religious affiliation he feels “misrepresented.”
He also says he has been taught to “love and try to help each other if anyone has problems ... You’ve got to have trust in each other ... You just got to be loving and caring ... and be sincere in everything you do for your family and everybody else.”
Knowing that al-Khattab once had these aspirations does not speak for his innocence. In fact, knowing these things only makes the whole story more tragic. This was underscored by the courage of al-Khattab’s father, who stepped up to the podium unexpectedly during a commemoration for officer Davis and offered an apology for the crimes and offenses of his son.
Knowing something about Khadir al-Khattab opens up a potential to empathize more deeply with the sudden death of officer James Davis. And with the possibility of honoring others — before tragedy strikes. But in the end, we are all bewildered by the most terrifying mysteries. By what passed between James Davis and Khadir al-Khattab in their last, living moments.