Trying to make sense of senseless violence

MIKE LITTWIN

October 30, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

The first thing you notice is the flowers, blanketing the lawn in front of the bank. Some of the arrangements are quite elaborate, quite beautiful. Some are moving -- two wooden crosses covered in flowers. But, somehow, what seems most real is a simple glass jar filled with daisies.

On the door of the bank, a nondescript brick building that betrays none of the horror seen there, hangs a single rose. Above the rose, a sign tells some of the story: "Sorry, we are closed due to an emergency." But it's a generic emergency sign. Anything might have happened, say a gas leak or a fire.

It is 2 p.m on Wednesday -- 48 hours after the fact. The bank is still closed. But otherwise, Liberty Road in Randallstown seems normal. There is plenty of traffic. People are gassing up at the Exxon next to the bank. In the 7-Eleven behind the bank, it's business as usual. Life goes on.

The Liberty Cue Club is a pool hall directly across the street from the Farmers Bank. It's in the middle of a shopping center housing an Italian restaurant, a laundromat, a computer store and some of the other necessities of modern life.

Steve Levin owns the pool hall. His manager is Darryn Smith. For them and the few customers who stop by for a quick afternoon game of pool, life isn't the same. All they can talk about is the murders at the bank.

"I've been here 12 years," Levin says. "I've owned the pool hall for a year and a half. We have some problems here. You get some robberies in the area. There's a gas station down the road that has bullet-proof windows. I get a brick thrown through the window sometimes. But nothing like this. Not here. In the city maybe."

The city line is seven miles down Liberty Road; the beltway is five miles.

"I moved from New York to get away from the violence," Smith says. "I guess there's no place you can go. Not with drugs. It had to be drugs, man. How else you shoot four women lying on the floor like that? Had to be drugs, something."

Had to be drugs, something.

There is no way to explain the murders. You can't explain in any understandable language how someone can make four people lie on the floor of a bank vault and then, without provocation, attempt to execute them. You can't explain that in human terms. The term "senseless murder" doesn't begin to do justice.

"Sick," Smith says. "They do that for $5,300."

"Got to be animals," says one of the pool players.

"That's an insult to animals," says another.

You can't explain it -- and yet we must try. Something must be done. How does a society get to a point where murder becomes so casual, where drive-by shootings are just so much fodder for the sensationalists on the 11 o'clock news?

It is worth noting that law and order, which now reduces nicely to personal safety, is not an issue in this presidential campaign. The cities are war zones. The suburbs are no longer safe. A woman walks out of ritzy Owings Mills mall and is robbed and murdered. In Guilford, they've hired private patrols. In the poorer sections of town, they wish they could afford patrols, or that the city could afford more police. People everywhere are frightened, and the present administration's answer seems to be to build more prisons. We already have more people per capita in prison than any country in the world.

What do you do?

"It's the guns," Levin says. "But there's millions of guns. You can't get rid of them."

One of the pool players says, "I know where you can get an Uzi for 500 bucks." No one doubts him.

In truth, the folks in the pool hall are less engaged by what can be done to stem the violence than what should be done to those who committed it. The angry talk at the pool hall is of revenge.

"Got to give them the chair," Smith says.

"Put 'em in Memorial Stadium, charge two bucks a person, and stone them," says a pool player.

"That's too good for them," says Levin. "I'd cut off their arms and legs and let them live."

You may agree with me that capital punishment is wrong and that it doesn't solve anything. You can't help, though, understanding the need for vengeance.

Levin is standing in front of his pool hall, looking at the bank.

"One of the women who was killed was working to send her son through college," he says. "I saw the son and his girlfriend at the bank last night. See that cash window there. He was pounding on the wall next to it. Pounding the wall and screaming. Just screaming as loud as he could."

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