The deaths we feel

September 10, 1992

The story was so ghastly that nearly all who heard it winced, as if in physical pain: A Howard County woman was dragged for almost two miles from the door of her car as two hoodlums "carjacked" the vehicle with the woman's toddler inside it. The woman died, the child was rescued and two Washington men were arrested. The murder, and the reaction to it, were both a measure of the derangement and insensitivity of some criminals and of how appalled the majority of the rest of us have become about crime.

Tuesday's murder of Pamela Basu, who was preyed upon while preparing to take her child to pre-school, was so extraordinary that it transcended local concern; USA Today ran it across the top of its national front page yesterday. The random killing was made all the more incredible by the fact that the 34-year-old woman was a nationally known research chemist whose work with catalytic converters led to changes that saved the auto industry billions of dollars.

Yet it is the rare murder that elicits reaction from most of us anymore. In 1991, 304 people were murdered in Baltimore City; it was 305 the year before. This year is quietly surpassing those high rates, with 225 homicides to date compared with 201 this time last year.

Down the parkway, it's even worse. More than 2,000 people have been slain in Washington over the past five years. The inability of D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. to stem the tide led, in part, to his resignation this week. Prince George's County, meanwhile, ended last year with 150 murders, 23 more than the previous record, set in 1989.

It has all become so everyday, so expected that the latest killing often has same impact as the daily weather blurb. Sun reporter David Simon, author of "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," has spoken about the numbing role the media has played. Reports of homicide have become so frequent, especially when they relate to the inner-city drug trade, that they all sound the same. Only the names and addresses change.

Those rare atrocities that steal our breath aren't reserved for the suburbs, either. News last week of the stabbing death of Kacynthia Maria Clark, 28, in her West Baltimore apartment, resonated around the region. The legal secretary was speaking on the phone when she answered a knock at her door at 11:30 a.m. A man barged in, ordered the woman's 6-year-old daughter to her room and proceeded to rape and kill Ms. Clark. The screams subsided, the intruder left, the youngster peered out of her room, found her mother in a puddle of blood and called 911.

Deaths related to drugs -- or even to AIDS -- in the '80s and '90s have been easy for the populace to take lightly. Most of us wouldn't be caught on a slum street corner at 3 a.m. Most of us don't inject drugs. These horrors can't happen to us.

But the deaths of a city woman answering her doorbell at midday, or of a suburban woman driving from her home in a development of expensive town houses to her daughter's pre-school, make our hearts race fast enough to be heard above the drip-drip-drip of murder in our community.

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