Everybody's right about the trouble with Robert

September 05, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you want to know why the $30 billion crime bill, now put into law, doesn't really matter much, all you have to do is look at the latest headline-grabbing murder.

This one, set in Chicago, had everything.

An 11-year-old, with a rap sheet taller than he was, fired a semi-automatic pistol into a crowd, police say, killing a 14-year-old girl, who was your classic innocent bystander. We mourned her, but too briefly. There was more mourning ahead.

That came when the 11-year-old cold-blooded killer, the one who had an "I Love Mommy" tattoo and hadn't quite yet grown to 5 feet tall, was killed himself, probably by the gang members he was trying to impress in the first place.

Let's review.

We have an 11-year-old killer. In a period of three days, he killed and was killed. Is life really that cheap?

All I know is that posturing politicians didn't help him or the young girl he killed one bit.

More cops and more prisons wouldn't have helped. The death penalty wouldn't have helped.

For too many children, prison is simply an expected part of life, like going to college is for other kids. For too many children, the real death penalty is found in the streets, where Robert found it.

Robert is the 11-year-old whose life ended with two bullets to the head.

He got there the usual way, in which brutality leads to brutality. And nobody does anything to save him.

His mother was 15 when she had her first child. Robert was born three years later. There would be more.

Robert was 3 when the social service people finally took him away from his mother. They had been tracking the house for years. Robert had cigarette burns on his body and injuries that apparently were consistent with electric cords. He had scars on his face. In other words, he clearly had been tortured.

This is not unique. It's not even unusual. There are all kinds of scary statistics about child abuse that any social worker can tell you.

But what do you do?

The child psychologists tell you that by this point, this kid doesn't have a great chance, no matter what you do. They tell you that the first three years are everything. In this case, they were right. Those three years were everything and more. They were the making of a sociopath and a couple of violent deaths.

After a brief stay with social services, Robert and his four siblings went to live with a grandmother. It was not, let's just say, an ideal situation. At one point, there were 19 people in the household. Keeping track of Robert was, at the least, problematic.

Nobody knew what to do with him. Not the social workers. Not the judges. Not his grandmother.

And so, he figured out his own way.

Robert was a car thief. He was an arsonist. He was a burglar. He was an armed robber. He was 11.

The juvenile courts were about to send him out of state because Illinois doesn't have facilities to house violent offenders that young. In the meantime, a judge decided Robert shouldn't be with older offenders and sent him home. In the meantime, Robert joined a local gang.

And, in the meantime, he killed and was killed. And if it that doesn't break your heart, I don't know what would.

This is the kind of story that leads to finger pointing. Robert was 11. He had a gun. Somebody must have been at fault.

The anti-gun folks will point to this as another example of how guns kill people.

The law-and-order folks will point out that he had been in trouble with the law most of his young life and was still in the streets.

Both sides are right.

Not that it matters.

Robert's story tells us the truth about crime. It's about children having children and how many of these child/parents can't take care of themselves, much less the baby they now possess.

It's about children being allowed to grow up in neighborhoods where drug-related violence rules the streets. I laugh when people try to say it's violent TV that leads to crime in the street. These kids don't need a TV. They can just look out their windows.

It's about schools that don't work. And welfare that doesn't work. And cities that are too poor.

Build more prisons. Hire more cops. They'll make you feel safer. Until you run into someone like Robert.

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