Witnessing violence, trying to understand


August 03, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

When my car turned the corner, I saw the teen on his hands and knees in the middle of the street, braining a cat with a brick.

I hit the brakes.

The teen was crouched in the circle of light cast by my headlights, like an animal frozen with fear. He held the cat's body down with one hand. The other hand held the brick, raised up above his head like a salute. While we stared at each other, the teen brought the brick down on the cat's head, up and down with the deliberate speed of a machine piston: clomp! clomp! -- with a dull, hollow sound.

It was late at night, hot and humid, a block away from my apartment in East Baltimore. The street was deserted.

A chill ran down my spine. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Then I felt afraid. It occurred to me that the kid's next act might be to hurl the brick at my car.

Slowly, the teen rose to his feet. He was stocky, maybe 14 or 15 years old. He wore shorts that fell below his knees, a striped shirt, basketball shoes with the laces untied.

He looked at me with indifference. Then he picked the cat up by the feet, drew his arm back like a softball pitcher and tossed the carcass down the street. It landed with a damp, heavy sound like a wet mop: whomp!

Somewhere, way off in the distance, a siren sounded.

The teen looked at me again, then strolled to the sidewalk. I sped off, watching him warily through my rearview mirror. Hands in pockets, the teen turned a corner and disappeared from view.

This happened last Wednesday. From that evening to this, I have tried to talk about the incident on several occasions. I have tried to talk about that empty, clutching feeling of nausea in my stomach.

I have tried to talk about the implications of what I saw -- that there are madmen among us, running loose, no doubt working their way up the animal kingdom until the time comes when they strike against their fellow man.

And I have sought advice: What should I have done? Tackled the teen and held him for the police? Followed him discreetly so that I could report his address?

But I find that most people don't want to hear any of this. They take it for granted that we are surrounded by sick, violent individuals and that there is nothing any of us can do about it. They do not want to hear the grisly details.

For their part, the mental health professionals I spoke with were reluctant to diagnose the teen based on my description alone. And they tended to disagree with the common view that such incidents suggest our society has become so sick that there is nothing to be done.

"I think I understand how people feel," says Dr. Henrietta Hestick, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in developmental childhood and family issues. "But I would stay away from saying that what you saw is a sign of the times. What you are describing is not something that we come across every day."

But when I prodded the professionals to put the incident into some kind of context, they found a number of common themes: They spoke of the powerlessness and despair that has engulfed an increasing number of people these days and of the violence that has permeated so many urban communities.

"Violence breeds violence," says Jan Maybin, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance. "Children are witnessing violence in their lives. They hear gunshots. They hear the police helicopters thundering overhead, with a spotlight glaring down on their homes. Many of their playmates have been shot down by drive-bys. And a lot are victims of family violence themselves."

"We have seen an exponential increase in violence these past few years and it is a numbing process -- violence no longer moves [some people]," says Dr. Annelle Primm, director of community psychology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Another common theme among the professionals was the belief that the troubled people they see represent, at best, only the tip of the iceberg of those in need.

"I suppose the teen I saw was almost beyond help, though," I say to Dr. Hestick.

"Oh no, you have to have hope," she replies quickly. "But we cannot help people we do not see."

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