The death of a police officer in the line of duty affects every other officer—and everyone else who has ever been one. Cops do not allow their brothers and sisters to die in vain; we honor them by learning from their deaths, by ensuring that others may live through their ultimate sacrifice. 

Thank God the two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies ambushed on Sept. 12 survived their attack. And two police officers shot in Louisville, Kentucky on Sept. 23 will recover. 

The deputies were in their car when they were ambushed, and each was struck by multiple gunshots. As the gunman ran away, the female deputy got out of her patrol car, radioed for help, and then applied a tourniquet to her wounded partner to save his life. Did I mention she had been shot through the jaw? Her radio transmission was remarkably clear for someone with a mouth full of blood and searing pain. She is the definition a hero. Even among cops, her story represents a special kind of “unbreakable.”

But there are a lot of cops who fit that description, and a lot of heroic police work happens every day in communities large and small throughout our nation. On the other hand, the perpetrator is clearly the opposite—a coward. That’s the lesson here, a lesson in contrasts.

We see another contrast in this incident—a contrast in values. By now, many of us have seen the footage of protesters showing up at the hospital where the deputies were transported to block the exits and entrances and to express their hope for the officers’ deaths. They threatened more violence. 

What that says is there’s no longer any middle ground. The contrasts are too stark. We can side with a working mother, someone’s daughter and neighbor, who is willing to risk her life for her community and her partner. Or we can side with those who laugh at her being shot and choking on her own blood, her only sin being the badge she wears. The choice is ours, and the distinction has been made crystal clear for us.

If your first impulse is to burn down the city after any use of force by the police, before any information comes out on the justification (or lack thereof), then you have chosen your side. Those who have chosen this side are unlikely to be dissuaded from their views, because running on pure emotion leaves little room for logic or facts. Sadly, we know that those who choose rage over reason will have a compliant media ready to reaffirm their rejection of this country, its values, and those guardians of the peace who enforce its laws and maintain its order.

Our other choice is to choose the rule of law and to accept the responsibilities required for a civil society. We can remain vigilant in our requirement that government be held accountable for its actions while still supporting law enforcement as a core function of that government. We can reject calls to defund and even abolish the police, and instead seek to improve policing through better training and hiring, through bringing the best and brightest into the profession.

Choosing this side requires that we exercise our responsibilities to our fellow citizen as often as we exercise our own rights. And finally, it requires that we always clearly identify the hero from the coward. We must choose wisely, but we all must choose.