It happened recently on a downtown street as I walked toward my doctor's office: From somewhere behind me, I heard a sharp, popping noise and, without thinking, I covered my head and ducked. It was not a conscious decision to react this way; my body just responded automatically to the noise.
A few minutes later, however, my mind caught up with my body.
I realized I had interpreted the noise as gunfire. And that I had reacted instinctively to protect myself. The gesture surprised me: I wasn't aware that such a reaction had been programmed into my routine survival mechanisms.
A few days after this incident, a city-dwelling friend -- a reporter in her 30s -- related a similar experience: Lying in bed one recent night, she heard a popping sound on the street outside and immediately assumed it was a shot. And, like me, she was dismayed but not shocked. She accepted the possibility of violence as one of the realities of contemporary urban life.
My friend, however, has more reason than I to understand the reality of such violence. "Two of my best friends have been murdered," she told me. Both were in their 30s.
One was shot by juveniles with a gun when he tried to stop them from breaking into a friend's pickup truck in Los Angeles. The other was stabbed to death in his apartment in Washington. His killer was never found.
Question: Is there anyone left out there who doubts that we live in an age when it's not uncommon to walk down the street and get shot? Or drive on the expressway and get shot? Or walk from a shopping mall to your car in broad daylight and get shot? And now the violence is spreading to smaller towns and cities -- to places like Akron and Little Rock and Charlotte.
But perhaps the most frightening -- and saddest -- statistic is the one that tells us much of the violence is being committed by young people. Kids so bankrupt of values they will kill for a jacket. Or a pair of sneakers. Or because of a perceived insult. Or because they are bored.
Question: Is there anyone left out there who still thinks America is the country it used to be? If so, it's time to face the truth: We no longer resemble our pioneer ancestors, those families -- men, women and children -- whose astonishing tenacity and courage lTC came to define what we admiringly call the American character. Contemporary values are no longer forged on the anvil that produced those generations of Americans.
Instead, young people today grow up in and are shaped by society that is often uncaring and out of control, one that is adrift from strong family values. Many adults never got in their own childhood what their children need from them and so are incapable of parenting.
And the mean streets out there grow meaner. Violence is everywhere: Child abuse, spousal abuse, gang warfare, drug warfare, sexual assaults, suicides, murders -- all are on the rise and seem to be a permanent part of the family landscape. Is it any wonder then that so many adolescents hold life in such low regard that the act of "blowing a person away" has little meaning?
The bottom line, of course, is that these violent young people have lost all hope of finding any meaning or value in their own lives. For most of them, even the smallest dreams or hopes for a future vanished early on. And if you have no future, why care about anything?
We see the results of such despair all around us: in school dropouts, in drug addiction, in violent behavior and sexual promiscuity. And in a more subtle way we see it in the coarsening of American society and the blunting of our ability to care about each other.
We are losing them to violence and despair, these children with no future who have disconnected themselves from the larger community. The irony, of course, is they represent our future, too. So if for no reason other than self-interest, we must bring them back into the circle. The question is how?
The answer is less clear. It's easy to say, "Bring back the family structure." But for some that may be impossible. Maybe for those kids who have never had and will never have a family, we're going to have to be the ones to offer them some hope for the future.
That's what businessman Eugene Lang has managed to do so successfully in New York with a number of disadvantaged school children. In promising to pay the college tuition for each child who completes high school, he has given them something to hope for.
In other words, he has given them -- and us -- a future.