Back in the 1940s I didn’t know the difference between health advice and a commercial. Tom Mix—a famous cowboy actor—sang to children who listened to his radio program:
Shredded Ralston for your breakfast
Starts the day off shining bright
Gives you lots of cowboy energy
With a flavor that’s just right
It’s delicious and nutritious
Bite size and ready to eat
Take a tip from Tom
Go and tell your mom
Shredded Ralston can’t be beat.
I tried to give my mom Tom’s tip, but she preferred oats and always insisted that we start the day with a warm bowl of mush. “OK,” I thought, “I’ll be content with oats.” But early on in my life I learned from Tom that no matter what one has for breakfast, it’s a good idea to start the day off—like the sun—“shining bright.”
These memories of my childhood recently raced through my mind as Muslims were celebratingEid Mubarak, the joyful holiday at the end of the sacred month of Ramadan. During this month Muslims don’t take their tips from Tom. In fact, they don’t start off each morning with a meal at all. Instead, they fast rigorously. Anything they eat is pre-dawn. Once the first ray of the sun appears there is no eating or drinking—not a drop of water or a scrap of bread—until they finish praying after sunset.
Why do Muslims do this? To experience the hunger that others experience on a daily basis. And to do something about world hunger by sharing their resources with those for whom hunger is a daily reality, not a seasonal one, they practice zukat, contributing money to support the needs of the poor.
Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of learning things like this from several Muslim students at the law school where I teach. This year I invited four Iraqi students and their families to have their fast-breaking meal—called Iftar—at my home.
The group arrived together around 7:30 in the evening. The women wore stylish head scarves. One of my guests was a cute little two-year-old boy. I greeted all of them in Arabic: ahlan wa sahlan—you are welcome here and you are safe here. I offered them hospitality the way our ancestor Abraham did to a couple of strangers centuries ago, “entertaining angels unawares.” We had a wonderful time sharing stories about memorable meals in our lives. I told them about the American festival of Thanksgiving, which in my family always meant a conjunction of all the aunts and uncles and cousins.
Then we heard the doorbell ring. I had invited another colleague from my faculty. Maybe it’s Derrick, I thought. To my surprise, there were two young policemen at the door and two senior officers behind them at the sidewalk. Nice fellows. Well behaved. But evidently wanting to come in.
I wondered why, but started off lightly: “Good evening, officers. What can I do for you?”
“We received a call that a baby in this house was heard crying, and is in danger, and we want to come in to check that out.”
They asked for ID. I decided not to make that an issue and gave them my driver’s license. I could tell he had been on an airplane: as he was checking my government-issued photo ID, he glanced at my face and then back at the image. I broke the silence by saying “Now tell me again why you want to come into my home.”
“I already told you. To check on the safety of a little baby.”
“Let me think about that for a minute,” I said. All sorts of things raced through my mind. The line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance: “A Policeman’s Lot is Not an ‘Appy One.” Walk a mile in their moccasins. Their job is to respond quickly to calls for help. To serve and protect. Especially if a little child is in danger. Sometimes they even place themselves at risk as they arrest a violent criminal.
I also thought of my guests upstairs and my duty of hospitality. I knew very well that the two-year old upstairs was enjoying a sweet meal with his parents and many new friends. I had also learned that all of my guests had experienced Americans coming into their homes in Iraq without an invitation and without a good reason to be there. I had already begun instructing my students on the American constitution and the limits it places on governmental power. So I opted not to consent to a search of my home, unless the policemen had a search warrant.
The young officer who was doing the talking looked shocked. Even a little wounded. “Why won’t you let us in?”
They are not my students, I reminded myself. Keep it short. “Because you have been misinformed.”
The young officer pressed on with what he thought would be convincing: “The person who called us said a baby has been crying here for two hours.”
Now, I knew the caller was a crank misleading the police. “But officer, that’s not possible.”
My training at the hands of Jesuits impelled me to offer three reasons, even if one might suffice. “Because I just left the grocery store about an hour ago and have a receipt that shows the day and hour when I was there buying apple juice and hummus for my guests. Because they just arrived at my home about forty minutes ago. And because you can believe your own ears; can you hear a baby crying?”
“No, but that might just mean the baby is dead.”
My patience broke. “Oh please, you go from a sublime reason to check things out—a little child needs your help—to the ridiculous—the baby is dead.”
The officer snapped, “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize I had.”
“Why can’t I come in right now to do my job?”
I remembered my first boss at the Justice Department, Attorney General Edward H. Levi. On his first day on the job back in the Ford Administration, a Special Agent from the FBI came over in the morning with a big stack of orders for the AG to sign, authorizing the Bureau to tap telephones. This FBI agent was just doing his job that day, exactly as he had done it every work day from 1968 to 1975. No AG—not Ramsay Clark, not John Mitchell, not Richard Kleindienst—had ever asked this Special Agent what Levi did: “Where’s your probable cause?” The FBI guy was dumbfounded, but he retreated, returning later in the day to request authorization for six wiretaps, not sixty. So in honor of the great man who long ago taught me that law enforcement officials must respect the limits the Constitution places on their authority, I just repeated Edward’s memorable question, “Where’s your probable cause?”
This got the attention of the Police Captain and the Sergeant who had remained out on the sidewalk and who now joined the other officers at the door. Two flashlights now shone in my face.
“You have to let us in. Now.”
“Captain, you have given many years, probably decades, to law enforcement. You know how easy it is to get a warrant. If you have probable cause to believe the caller rather than me, you will be able to get a warrant very quickly. And you can leave an officer here to guard the door. But you do need a good reason not to trust me. I’m a dad with three girls. If one of them was ever in danger, I would want someone like you to protect her. But no one is in danger in this home tonight. So I have to ask you to leave. Now.”
For twenty seconds that seemed like an hour no one said anything. No one moved. Things were still tense when I thought of something else. “How about this? I’m willing to go upstairs and tell my guests why you are here, and I will ask the little boy’s mom if she’s cool with coming down to the door to let you see for yourself that her son is fine. But she has to decide whether or not to do that. In the meantime, I am leaving the door open, but I am not giving you permission to come in. I think I’ll be back soon with the mom and her little boy.”
“OK,” the Captain said, and I went upstairs to tell my guests what was happening at the front door. They were surprised. “That’s not what would happen in Iraq,” one of them said. “They just bust in.” The mother thought for a moment, and then said, “Sure.”
I walked down the staircase and told the officers, “Here we come.” As I glanced back, I saw a serene mother carrying a sweet and happy baby on her hip. At that moment this woman seemed valiant to me, and for a second I was hoping I had not put her in harm’s way. My fear was needless. She diffused the tension with four disarming words, “Here is the victim.” And she smiled.
All my guests started to laugh softly. Police officers are probably trained not to join in laughter on an occasion like this, but half of them at least smiled back. Maybe they finally realized they had responded to a false alarm. They said nothing, and left. I said, “Good night,” and softly closed the door. My guests and I went upstairs to finish off the Iftar on a sweet note with cake and the gourmet ice cream of my village, "Valpo Velvet."
Twenty minutes later the family with the little boy had to leave. I went downstairs with them and saw three of the police officers still talking together out in the street. So I decided to accompany my guests to their car.
As I came back to my home, I asked the cops, “Hey guys, want some ice cream?”
“Nah,” one of them said.
“It’s Valpo Velvet! Chocolate Almond and Butter Brickle.”
“No, we’d better not.”
“OK. Well, thanks for dropping by.”
I have no idea who called the cops and sent them on a wild goose chase. A nasty neighbor who doesn’t want women with veils in our little Vale of Paradise? Stranger things have happened in America since 9/11.
I will ask our Chief of Police to share the identity of the person who placed the 911 call with our City Attorney. He’ll be able to decide whether to charge someone with public nuisance or at least talk to them about the civic harm in calling in a false alarm to the police or the fire department.
And I will write a letter to our Mayor, an alumnus of our law school who has been doing marvelous things in our community. I’ll ask him to do whatever he can to promote broader acceptance of the world beyond Valpo, made up of all sorts of different peoples with different customs, including what you ought to eat for breakfast and even whether for twenty-eight days each year you ought to eat or drink anything during the day.
Ed Gaffney is a law professor at Valparaiso University, where he teaches a seminar on religious freedom and a course on international law and the use of force.