The line crossed, lives lost in crossfire that grips America

MIKE LITTWIN

March 12, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

We crossed another line in Florida on Wednesday when that poor misguided soul gunned down a doctor who performed abortions.

Forget, for a moment, the irony of a pro-life advocate pulling the trigger. That's like a sick cosmic joke. But something more profound is at work here.

We were surprised either by the killing or maybe that one hadn't happened sooner. But the sad truth is that we won't be surprised the next time. In fact, what would be surprising now is if there weren't a next time.

That's the line we've crossed -- the barrier between what was once unimaginable in our society and what is now blood-red reality.

It's a line we've crossed a lot recently.

You read the papers. You watch TV. If it's not terrorists in New York, pursuing some end we can't even begin to comprehend, it's the messianic zealot who has come to be known as the wacko in Waco in pitched battle with the feds. Or it's the 335 murders committed in Baltimore last year.

And while the violence continues to escalate, we become increasingly inured to it. No wonder. It's everyday life -- every-day life and death, anyway. Somebody else got blown away at the office today, dear; how was your day?

There comes a point where the violence is almost casual in its cruelty, as plain-old shootings graduate to drive-by shootings and some 12-year-olds carry guns to school. We don't seem to mind so much as long as it happens in someone else's neighborhood.

Hollywood is trying desperately to keep up, moving from the fantasy violence of Dirty Harry or Rambo to "Falling Down," meant to be a true-life fantasy about an average guy who can no longer accept the small humiliations of life and becomes a heavily armed, avenging angel/psychotic. It's the No. 1 movie in the country. You think that's a coincidence?

The story of the standoff in Texas will one day certainly be screened. It's obvious movie-of-the-week fodder, featuring sex, gunplay, religion, child abuse -- all your basic TV staples. The networks are probably doing casting calls for the David Koresh role right now.

Of course the Waco story is fascinating, and on several levels, including this one: It seems to me the idea of apocalypse by store-bought gunfire is a perfect metaphor for our times.

The story does not begin or end with guns, however. And the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with the concept that people kill people -- and that's the heart of the problem. Why do we continue to assault one another and what can be done about it?

But it's also clear that when people do kill people, they tend to do so with guns, and nobody seems to have the will to address either issue.

Most of us believe, if you trust the polls and not the NRA, in some form of gun control. I don't know how anyone can argue with making a prospective gun owner pass a firearms competency test. I don't see why anyone would object to a system whereby guns are fingerprinted so we can keep track of them, in the way we do automobiles. Actually, maybe Koresh would object.

In Texas, there are four guns for every person. Think about that. It isn't simply that guns are so readily come by -- almost any gun, except for fully automatic rifles, is available if you're 21 and sign a form saying you're mentally competent -- but that they're so much in demand.

Authorities believe Koresh was able to legally purchase a .50 caliber sniper rifle, which can stop a man from 1,500 yards away and take on a light armored vehicle from closer range.

How can that be in society's interest? Why not just let him have his own personal atomic bomb?

The point is, Koresh has this arsenal -- apparently, much or all of it purchased legally -- and nobody seems outraged. Have we lost the ability to be shocked? Is that what has happened to us?

We get titillated by Amy Fisher and the Buttafuocos, but they don't seem real. They might as well be characters in a Danielle Steel novel.

But the killing in Pensacola, Fla., that's real. It's the story of how the moral and political battle surrounding abortion devolved into a cold-blooded shooting. That's how too many arguments have come to be resolved these days.

Is there a point at which we decide that we've seen enough of this violence and that we're going to confront it in a meaningful way?

Or -- and this is almost too frightening to consider -- is this who we really are?

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