Thin line between mean streets and mean movies gets thinner

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 14, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In this dim little courthouse corridor, a city prosecutor is looking through the morning paper's movie ads when the bad news arrives about Phyllis Hornfeck.

"Shot her in the mouth on Franklintown Road," a plainclothes cop says. "Sixty-year-old bank teller. Looks like a robbery that got out of hand, but who knows?"

The prosecutor looks up from his newspaper, takes in this latest bit of business about the city's ongoing self-destruction, and then buries his face back in the movie ads.

Phyllis Hornfeck was the 150th murder victim of 1991 in the city of Baltimore. The night after her shooting, two more homicides were committed, bringing the total to 152.

A year ago this time, the figure was 142. You have 294 people dying of murder in 18 months, and the value of human life is reduced from flesh and blood to mere arithmetic.

On the other side of a wooden table, the front page headline speaks of a little girl named Tiffany Smith. On Tuesday night, Tiffany was caught in a cross-fire between two neanderthals shooting bullets at each other, and she died.

We remember her name a little longer than the other murder jTC victims because most of them were not Tiffany's age. She was 6. This makes her unusual, but not entirely unique. She was the eighth child under the age of 10 to die of homicide in Baltimore since Jan. 1.

"Terrible thing," the plainclothes cop says.

The prosecutor's eyes keep scanning the newspaper movie ads. Tiffany Smith was the city's 149th homicide victim. In an instant, she is reduced from a child who played with dolls to a number on a victim list.

"What's the answer?" the plainclothes cop says, mostly to himself.

"Death penalty," says another cop. "Only way."

"Nah," the first cop says. "The death penalty's not a deterrent. People don't commit crimes thinking they're gonna get caught. If they thought they'd get caught, they wouldn't commit the crime in the first place."

"Screw deterrence," the first cop says now. "It's punishment, that's all. And that's enough."

Heads turn now toward the prosecutor, who is still looking through the movie ads.

He is the voice of authority on such matters, the man with the extensive legal training and the understanding of subtle moral nuance. The prosecutor looks up from his newspaper.

" 'Terminator 2,' " he announces.

"Seen it," one of the cops says. "Unbelievable."

"Terminator 2" is a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets to kill a lot of people and settle disputes with a variety of violent methods. The movie has done about a zillion dollars in business in its first two weeks. Never mind all its technical expertise, never mind all its modern special effects, the movie does something that transcends time itself. Its violence takes us back to the edge of the cave.

A few months ago, Schwarzenegger visited Baltimore as head of the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

He talked to schoolkids. He said it was important to keep our bodies in shape. Everybody applauded and said what a great role model Arnold Schwarzenegger is, with his wonderful pectorals and such.

Nobody mentioned the movies he makes that present him as a casual killer and fantasy role model for those sitting in the dark of crowded theaters.

"What's the answer?" somebody says now to the prosecutor.

"Answer?"

"All this violence."

He shrugs his shoulders. Across the corridor, the familiar reasons are flung back and forth: drug traffic, the economy, the breakdown of the family. They've become a kind of urban mantra, the things we chant to each other for comfort while we grope about in the dark for solutions.

Those of us who live in the city tell ourselves a series of little lies: It couldn't happen in my neighborhood. Couldn't happen on my block. Not outside my home. To others, maybe, but not to me.

And then we brace ourselves, and spend money on elaborate alarm systems, and debate the logic of keeping a gun in the house.

The gun lobby licks its lips over this.

Never mind the president reluctantly signing some five-day waiting period into law before you can buy a gun. What's five days when there are millions to be made in a nation arming itself against its own shadowy demons?

"Mondawmin," a court clerk says a few minutes later.

"They had some guy selling guns right out of his car trunk the other day. He was standing right on the parking lot there, and people were buying them right out of his trunk."

Guns like this killed Phyllis Hornfeck and Tiffany Smith. As a community, we'll remember their names for a day or two, and then they'll slip from memory.

The people who make laws in the places like Washington and Annapolis will read their stories and shake their heads sadly and then do nothing at all.

Outlaw guns? Unthinkable.

The only thing they fear more than guns is the damnable gun lobby. Send some money into the cities? Impossible. This is a White House that had any latent domestic inclinations shot off in the war.

And so life in the city becomes more and more a roll of the dice and a series of lies we tell ourselves that the violence will never arrive at our own doorstep.

" 'Terminator 2,' " the prosecutor says now, rising and heading off toward court.

"You're really gonna see that junk?" he is asked.

"Certainly," he says. "It's great escapism."

That's what he thinks.

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