After one of its bloodiest years on record, Baltimore City is at a crossroads. Unless the murder rate is reduced, the city could bleed to death.
Other big cities face the same societal devastation. Murder records were broken in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Phoenix, Memphis, Richmond and Boston. Particularly scary was the cold-blooded nature of it all.
"In my personal conversations with young people who have been involved in violence, there is no remorse, there is not the first tear, there is no sense that this is wrong," observed District of Columbia Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. According to Baltimore City Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, the cities are witnessing such a disintegration of society and its values that the only salvation could be putting "God back into the souls of our young people."
The old panaceas have failed. Conservatives wanted to build prisons and lock up criminals; liberals preached gun control. Yet despite record numbers of cells and some of the nation's strictest gun-control laws, homicide rates are steadily rising in Maryland. In Baltimore City and Prince George's County, which lead the state in killings, many of the murders are drug related. Others are just culminations of arguments. Or the victims are innocent bystanders. The drug epidemic of recent years has spawned an adolescent culture of guns, greed and disrespect for life.
"We can't have a repeat of this in 1991," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said after a New Year's Eve meeting with top police brass. "We have to talk compassion, but we also have to talk punishment. Traditional punishments don't seem to be effective for some people in our society."
The choice is clear: either uphold and defend the civilized norms that made orderly urban life possible or become hostages to gun-toting misfits.
This is not Baltimore City's problem alone. The more violent the city becomes, the more that violence spreads into suburban counties. In fact, three particularly gruesome killings last year took place in Baltimore County -- the slaying of two teen-agers in Essex and the shooting of an elderly Sparks man offering the use of his telephone to two ostensibly stranded motorists.
There is no easy way to halt the current murder wave. Armed self defense, which many people have resorted to, is no answer. It is up to public officials to propose new methods to deal with this cycle of crime and violence. Mayor Schmoke is right about taking a stand in 1991 against the killings. Public order must be maintained.