Fear of crime does violence to our thinking

January 13, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The youngest in my family opened the front door Tuesday morning when she saw the ambulance lights and heard the screams of the woman lying in the street by the house next door.

"This can't happen to me," the woman was crying. "This can't happen to me. I have a job. I have a family."

The child stood there in the hall for a moment, afraid to venture outside, and then told my wife what was happening in the street: Somebody shot, she said. Somebody screaming. Police everywhere. My wife glanced quickly outside, saw the flashing lights of an ambulance, then came into the bedroom where I was shaking off the last veils of sleep.

"There's been a shooting out there," she said. "There are police cars and an ambulance. Somebody's lying in the street."

I threw on some clothes and went into the cold, moving gingerly across an icy pavement. Lying in the street was a large woman, writhing in pain, her screams piercing the frigid morning air. Medics crouched above her, trying to move her, trying to get a stretcher under her.

Bulletins flashed through my head, little fragments of headlines: A shooting in my neighborhood. A woman in the street. Exactly where, in my front yard, should I place a For Sale sign for my house?

"Oh, God, oh, God," the woman cried.

Instincts bumped into each other: the desire to lend some kind of comfort, but the uneasiness that I was intruding terribly on her privacy and should go away. But where? This was my home. Where do you go when you think you don't belong outside your own home?

In a clot of people gathered around the woman, I saw a neighbor who'd come outside before me.

"How bad?" I asked softly.

"Pretty bad," she said. "Her ankle. They think it might be broken."

"Her ankle? What happened?"

"She slipped on the ice," said the neighbor, "and fell down."

"No shooting? I heard it was a shooting."

"No," said the neighbor. "Not this time."

And there it was: Not this time.

I looked around and saw the ambulance with its lights flashing, but there were no police anywhere, nor any police cars. The child in my house had simply seen the ambulance, and the screaming woman, and made certain leaps of logic in her head. Violence is assumed today. We've learned, as a community, to skulk through our days, eyes down, awaiting the inevitable tap on the shoulder signaling our time of dread has come.

In my family, we live in a nice neighborhood, but it's inside the city limits. At night sometimes, with all the windows closed, we've heard the rattle of gunfire several streets away. A block from my house, there's a church with a sign out front urging people to stop by this Saturday and turn in their guns. The cops say that a once-proud boulevard near our house has become one of the city's most dangerous narcotics corridors.

There was a time when we imagined politicians could solve such problems, but such notions now seem naive. More than almost anything, their pathetic response to street crime makes us sneer at them.

In Annapolis, the legislature opened its 1994 session yesterday with much talk of meaningful gun control legislation. The NAACP's executive director, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., says his group will endorse an effort to license handguns in Maryland. There's a belated revulsion in the air, a sense that this violence has finally gone on too long.

But there's also this fear that nothing can stop it now. William Donald Schaefer meets with Kurt Schmoke and Sharon Pratt Kelly, and this is supposed to give us calming assurance: Powerful people are working to stop this madness.

We are not assured, not any longer. More and more, the politicians seem only to be talking to each other. The predators they wish to reach have long since tuned out, as oblivious to all brave talk of anti-crime measures as are the dope fiends who are told to stop sharing needles or risk AIDS. They're beyond the sound of our voices, subcultures with their own rules, their own expectations of life.

What's worse is this: They've made the rest of us honorary members of the subculture. We wait for the tap on the shoulder that they've entered our world. We see a woman lying in the icy street and assume, quite automatically, that the violence has now arrived at our very door.

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