Life Is Cheap


June 08, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--At 2:41 a.m. last Wednesday morning, our house alarm went off, filling the night with a sound approximating the hammers of hell. I ran down the hall in a manic stupor to punch in the code on the keypad near the front door -- sensing someone else there with me in the dark.

''Fiona?'' I assumed it was our 8-year-old. And I assumed she had opened a door to let in the cat. It's happened before.

''Go back to bed,'' I said in parent gruff. I was back myself in only a second or two, hearing my wife on the telephone, giving other codes and assurances to the police.

''Was it Fiona?'' she said to me, or to my form under the covers.

''I guess,'' I said, meaning leave me alone. She didn't.

I got up again and asked Fiona if she had done it. ''No,'' she said. ''I was in bed.''

A window or a door was still open somewhere and there was a chance there was somebody in the house. We had already turned off the keypad lights that were supposed to tell us what was open. We couldn't find the instruction book, leading to the kind of words that test most marriages. ''You have to check the house,'' my wife said.

Great. The man of the house picked up a baseball bat. Well, not exactly a bat. It was a kind of painted toy bat from Mexico we had used to hit a pinata at Christmas. I was scared and I thought, not for the first time, that maybe it was a mistake not to have a gun in the house.

Sliding along walls from room to room, I finally found a glass patio door open about an inch. The cat was on the other side. Probably it had not been closed all the way, but was close enough to line up the alarm sensors -- and the cat had been able to get a paw in and move the door just far enough to break the electrical connection. She, the cat, must have been even more frightened than I was.

I had trouble getting back to sleep, which is unusual for me, and then it took me some time in the morning to reconstruct what had happened. I was probably in a daze through most of it.

If I had had a gun, maybe I would have shot anything that moved, the cat or a Japanese kid looking for a party -- or my neighbor, who is also Japanese, or a security officer who came by, or myself, my wife or my daughter.

But I'll take my chances -- and the sporadic fear that comes now with living in urban America. Thinking about Yoshihiro Hattori, the 16-year-old Japanese exchange student shot to death for knocking on the wrong door in Louisiana -- and the official sympathy for the panicky American who shot him -- I realized that in our innocence or ignorance we have come full circle.

At the beginning of the war in Vietnam, there were fools in the United States who propagated the line that Asians did not place the same value on life as advanced and God-fearing Westerners like you and me. Now other Asians, the Japanese, are arguing that the acquittal of young Hattori's killer shows that Americans just don't have the same reverence for life that Asians do.

Life is cheap in America, foreigners' lives even cheaper. The Los Angeles Times of last Wednesday reported on the May 14 murder of a 26-year-old African named Joseph Chinedu, a Nigerian who was shot to death outside a downtown nightclub. Police did not even bother notifying his family and friends of his death for three days and only told them after several visits to police stations by local Nigerians.

Mr. Chinedu, it seems, had complained that a rock group's limousine was blocking his car. The group's drivers beat him up in front of hundreds of witnesses, the police say now, and when he complained again, they shot him and he bled to death. The story came out because Nigerians, led by Mr. Chinedu's brother, Ogboko Nwakibe, visiting from Lagos, conducted their own investigation, rounding up witnesses and delivering them to the police.

Mr. Ogboko flew home with his brother's body on Thursday, saying: ''Here [in America] nobody wants to talk to the police. . . . What bothers me most is the nonchalant attitude people here have about human life.''

They misjudge us, these foreigners. What we have a nonchalant attitude about is guns. What we have reverence for is the right to bear arms. If they don't like being in the line of fire, they should stay home where they belong.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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