The Latest Violence


January 21, 1993|By JOHN MacFARLAND

She said she'd be right back with the latest violence. The latest violence? My mind conjured up a runway on which the latest in violence was being paraded before us, sullen, anorexic, haughty. Did we now have designer violence? New age violence? I stayed tuned.

No, this was not a fashion statement for urban America in the 1990s. This was the grisly litany to which we'd become inured, the daily recitation of shooting incidents that took the pulse of the city. In dispatching the audience to one of the three-minute commercial intervals that are the bricks around which the two-minute sound bites they call news is mortared, this local newscaster, trying to be clever, was making a social comment she probably wouldn't have grasped had it jogged across her TelePrompTer.

As I watched the latest violence -- I thought about the fact that there was only a casual, off-hand introduction needed. Nobody assumed anymore that there wouldn't be a story on the local nightly newscast about violence in the streets. It was there. Like the empty patter between the newspeople, the weather forecast and the unlettered sportscaster. You'd see it every night.

I mean, it hadn't been that long ago when violence in the streets was a story, where the anchor people made compassionate faces at each other over the fact that a human being had died. A fatal shooting somewhere, especially if it had happened since the 6 o'clock news, was headline material. An eager young reporter on the scene, making a face even more compassionate than the anchor people, interviewing the officer in charge, hopefully with graphic footage of the body being removed and bloodstains fresh on the street.

It was the kind of grabber for which they'd sandwich a leader into the final commercial break of the preceding sitcom.

Maybe it was because the sitcoms were getting as violent as the news; maybe it was the inevitable ennui brought on by endless repetition. But after a while the nightly homicide, even with the visual goodies, had lost its snap. These local newscasts are a competitive business, with stations hijacking each others' anchor personalities to gain a few rating points. Headlining the same humdrum homicides doesn't get the ratings, so the nightly fatal shooting paled to a bland obiter dictum that slithered in before the third commercial break at 10.10.

In their effort to keep up with the ''latest,'' a new term crept into the 10 o'clock lexicon that helped put violence back on top for a while. The Crossfire. When the kids and their young mothers, some of them maybe even pregnant, started getting in the way of the hail of bullets that was becoming the warp and woof of the city streets, it coined a new phrase that rolled nicely off the tongue. Caught in the crossfire. More compassionate faces. More rating points.

As the violence continued its upward spiral, new wrinkles in its commission served to keep it in the limelight on selected evenings. But the boredom factor is unrelenting, forcing each new species into an inexorable evolution from opening story at first occurrence to offhand trailer once it had happened a few times. Freeway shootings; multiple shootings; drive-by shootings; school shootings. All had followed the path to ratings insignificance.

The coin of the realm had been devalued, and the shooting stories, being more plentiful, didn't quite rate the full headline spread any more. Maybe it was manpower constraints, but when the number of shootings in a single evening went past seven, they had to eliminate footage on at least a couple.

Then a single homicide took place that was able to hold the opening story, by itself, for almost an entire week. The killing of a suburban woman grabbed our attention, a professional, driving a BMW: On a trip to a suburban shopping mall, she is dragged to her death in a ''carjacking,'' her coat caught in the seat belt and the car door as the jackers make off with the vehicle.

Carjackings are a relative novelty for those of us who live in the suburbs and have the luxury of keeping city violence at arm's length, but that was not why the story was so durable. This was not one of ''them'' that had been killed, one of those faceless homicides we were used to hearing recited on the evening newscast. This was one of ''us;'' on our rounds to the nearby shopping mall, we might find ourselves in the midst of such a carjacking, being dragged to our death.

In the spirit of complacent offhandedness, we were assured there was no pattern to this. This was an act of ''random'' violence, the implication being that those who lived away from the mean city streets did not need to worry too much about this kind of thing. But if this is ''random,'' it's unplanned, haphazard, has no specific pattern or objective.

We can relate to the orderliness of the nightly accounts, ticking off the number of homicides in America's inner cities. We can even understand how a story of some people being killed in what used to be Yugoslavia takes precedence over more people being eradicated downtown. But how do we deal with the fact that we may be a ''random'' victim if someone decides to carjack us, or perhaps to ''drive by'' us as we drive the freeway or walk the street?

Our culture demands the latest in everything, from cellular phones to lizard-skin cowboy boots. A small minority's passion for an outmoded approach to firearms possession, and the continuing drift of the inner cities that have been cut loose by our short-sighted brand of cowboy capitalism, will bring many a newfangled twist of violence closer to all of us.

Stay tuned for more of the latest violence.

John MacFarland writes from Riderwood.

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