There's no way to digest stupidity in Basu killing

WILEY A. HALL

April 22, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

"Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain," wrote the 18th century poet, Johann Cristoph Friedrich von Schiller.

Bernard Eric Miller, the 17-year-old on trial in Howard County for the carjacking and murder of Pam Basu, is a clean-cut, handsome young man with a quiet, almost gentle demeanor.

"What did Eric want to do with his life?" I asked Deborah Miller, the defendant's mother.

"What did he want to do?" she repeated angrily. "What did he want to do? I'll tell you what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a father to his 3-month-old child. That's what he wanted to do."

Bernard Eric Miller is my home boy. He lived with his mother and two brothers in a home off Benning Road in Northeast Washington, D.C. -- a neighborhood within bicycling distance of where I grew up. He was in his senior year at H.G. Woodson High School, and I knew lots of kids who went there. He attended the Grace Memorial Baptist Church on Minnesota Avenue and I know that church.

All of this makes it very difficult for me. Northeast D.C. is a community of hard-working, church-going people. A lot of the residents there graduated from high school or attended college. Many own their own homes. Yet, it also is a troubled community plagued by drugs and crime and violence. Children appear to be rejecting the values of their parents and grandparents. Young men get snagged in the gangster lifestyle. They sell and use drugs. They carry guns.

And nobody can adequately explain what is going on.

We talk of the breakdown of families, but many young men in the same community come from single-parent households and yet manage to reject violence and crime.

We talk of the absence of role models in these communities, but in fact these young men are surrounded by men and women who work hard, struggle to save, dream about the future. And for blacks, there are more visible examples of successful men and women today than ever before.

We talk of drugs, but drugs are the symptom, not the cause.

Finally, we describe suspects as "animals" but that is mere hyperbole, not to mention an insult to the animal kingdom. Many of the most horrifying murders are committed not by career criminals but by young men with little or no criminal record.

The murder charges against Bernard Eric Miller seem to illustrate this sad fact.

Last September, Pam Basu, a 34-year-old research chemist, was forced from her car by two men and then dragged for nearly two miles after her arm became entangled in a seat belt as the pair tried to speed off. Dr. Basu apparently was trying to rescue her 22-month-old daughter, who was in the back seat of the car. The thieves, however, had tossed the little girl out of the car early in the incident. Dr. Basu died a horrible death.

This is a crime that defies definition. It occurred in a residential neighborhood in Savage, Md., at a time when many of the people there were on their way to work or school. You would think any reasonable person should have realized the chances of escape were nil. There was no profit in it -- nobody alleges, for instance, that the thieves had planned to sell the car.

In my neighborhood, we talked about "hard" kids, people with a cold, ruthless, I-don't-give-a-damn look about them. But Mr. Miller doesn't have that look.

Again and again, we come back to the question of why.

The horror is not that we are surrounded by vicious people. The horror is that so many young men from struggling but hard-working communities are accused of doing vicious things.

According to the prosecution, the defendant and his friends were in a car that had run out of gas and they were looking for a way home. Somebody suggested carjacking. They had accosted two other residents before they settled on Dr. Basu.

Why not hitchhike home? Why not call a family member or a friend and ask for a ride? Why not walk?

It was, in short, an abysmally stupid crime with fatal consequences.

Schiller, of course, was right: Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain. But that is not good enough, is it?

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