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Neither heroes nor heels are made in a day. Long before 10 a.m. Friday, March 23, when a four-hour drama involving a terrorist in a grocery store began, policeman Arnaud Beltrame knew the drill.
The lieutenant colonel in France’s national police had joined its elite special forces in 2003 and in 2005 served in Iraq, a year when 900 NATO coalition forces were killed. Upon return he became a member of the presidential guard, earning in 2012 the Order of Merit. Three months ago Beltrame led a counterterrorism drill in the south of France, arming his officers with paintball guns to confront a make-believe hostage situation in a grocery store. “We want to be as close to real conditions as possible,” he said.
When on that Friday morning newscasters reported a police officer wounded inside the Super U, a grocery store where a terrorist had taken hostages in Trèbes, Beltrame’s mother, out shopping herself and listening to the radio, knew it was her son.
How trained professionals prepare for the moment when they will walk toward the burning building, enter it, and lay down their lives is a story for all. No matter how many times we may hear of it, such breathtaking courage should at least quiet our silly squabbles and rude complaining.
‘Only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice.’
Beltrame, who was 44 and recently married, on that day wasn’t relying only on training and time in combat. Making a commitment to the Catholic Church at age 33, he was known by family, friends, and associates as a man of faith. One of the striking features of the stories about him in the aftermath of the attack is that, among those who knew him, no one was surprised by what he did. “He lived a genuine conversion,” said the priest of the abbey he regularly attended and served with his wife Marielle.
From a ring of special police forces surrounding the Super U, Beltrame went into the building where the 26-year-old Radouane Lakdim, a Moroccan-born French citizen who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, had killed two shoppers. Already he also had wounded a driver and killed a passenger in a carjacking. As gunfire rang out from the store, some shoppers escaped, some locked themselves in a meat locker, as Lakdim took hostage a 40-year-old cashier named Julie.
Beltrame approached as Lakdim held Julie, the mother of a 2-year-old, and asked to take her place. He kept his mobile phone on to allow police outside an ear to what was happening.
We now know that after freeing Julie, Lakdim took Beltrame and at some point slit his throat, an ISIS trademark tactic. In Syria when ISIS captured mostly Christian towns, the militants first beheaded male hostages, hanging their heads in public squares for all to see. “The beheadings were the horror that silenced people,” a Syrian father told National Geographic.
Police killed Lakdim amid gunfire in the subsequent assault, but Julie and many others were saved.
Beltrame, who died of his wounds, was far from silenced. He did not hide his faith, “he radiated it,” said police chaplain and Catholic priest Dominique Arz. “We can say that his act of offering is consistent with what he believed. He went to the end of his service to the country and to the end of his testimony of faith.”
Father Jean-Baptiste, canon of Beltrame’s church, attended him as he died and told Famille Chrétienne (Christian Family) magazine: “It seems to me that only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice, which is today the admiration of all. He knew as Jesus told us, ‘… there is no greater love than giving one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13). He knew that if his life began to belong to Marielle, it was also to God, to France, to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.”
Beltrame’s quiet service amid the loud clangings of the day should remind a watching world of the sudden brevity of life and the surpassing greatness of self-sacrificing love. It should quicken fellow Christians to prepare for such a day.