In age of jerks and nuts, no one can be fully safe

September 19, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

The reporters' questions bordered on being laughable. They wanted Secret Service officials to guarantee that nobody would ever again crash a plane near the White House.

The Secret Service firmly declined to make such a promise. Nor would they say what they might do to make it less likely that someone with a suicidal streak might again drop out of the sky.

The reporters at the news conference sounded surprised. But what is really surprising is that they didn't recognize the simple message they were getting.

That message is that in this country nobody is 100 percent safe. A person can't be given total foolproof protection, short of locking him in a vault. Not you, me, or the president of the United States. Not if someone else is determined enough to sacrifice his own life or freedom.

But why should that be surprising? It's part of the trade-off we make. We want a maximum of freedoms with a minimum of restraints.

In many countries it would be virtually impossible for someone to crash a small airplane near the residence of the head of state.

In those countries there is no private ownership of aircraft. There is no access to such planes. And if someone somehow managed to get such a plane into the air, he would be detected almost immediately and probably shot down.

But we have tens of thousands of private planes. Not only can you buy or rent one, but you also can buy a kit and build your own. And we have tens of thousands of people licensed to fly private planes.

As the world's most mobile and transient people, we believe it is our right to drive our cars and boats and motorcycles, fly our planes, pedal our bikes, surf our boards, roll our in-line skates or jog in traffic.

Hoping to maintain some order, we have all sorts of traffic laws for those who travel on the ground, in the air and on water.

But since we don't have enough cops and other government agents to enforce our many rules, we mostly rely on the common sense, the decency and the civility of individuals.

And that's where the system breaks down. With each passing year, we have less common sense, decency and civility, and more and more social madness.

We've had outbreaks of strangers shooting at strangers on highways because someone was rude in traffic. A few days ago, a couple of motorists lost their temper just outside of Chicago and played bumper tag until a car turned over. The result: One dead woman and one man up to his ears in legal trouble.

The other night, a guy stood on Fullerton Avenue, near once-peaceful Logan Square. He shouted insults at passing drivers and threw bottles at their cars. Someone got angry and shot the man in the head. Now we have another corpse and another wanted killer.

That's all part of the trade-off. We believe in our right to our wheels, so it is inevitable that we will have wacky people driving cars and killing each other.

We believe it is our right to own guns, so it's inevitable that we'll have evil people owning them and shooting others.

We have a truly great society, a truly great constitution, a truly great democracy. The trouble is, we also have a large population of jerks, and it is getting bigger by the minute.

Should it be a great shock that somewhere there was a man who knew how to fly, and he was apparently a drunk with a busted marriage and many other demons flitting between his ears, and he stole a plane and killed himself by crashing on the White House lawn? It is easily explained in popular psychobabble: He was making a statement.

After all, if you kill yourself by sitting in a garage with your car engine running, it might not even make the local newspaper. But if you try to crash the White House, you get your 15 minutes of fame.

So how does the Secret Service give a news conference a guarantee that it won't happen again? It can't. If a guarantee were possible, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, George Wallace and Ronald Reagan would not have been shot. Not as long as we cherish our gun-ownership rights so much that we let guns get into the hands of haters and crazies.

The mayor of Chicago, much as he would like to, can't guarantee that no more 11-year-olds will be killers or victims of killers. Not as long as we have a growing population of moronic parents who were themselves abused and neglected and raise even bigger generations of misfits.

The other day, I wrote about youths who get their kicks by flinging bricks at the windshields of cars on expressways. People have been killed this way.

There was a time when even one brick would have caused public outrage. Now there is little more than a public shrug. Hey, a brick, an 11-year-old killer, a deranged pilot? So what else is new?

We've become so desensitized, so accustomed to being potential victims ourselves, so grateful when we make it through a day alive, we've become almost shockproof.

But the fact is, we can't protect the White House from a stray loony, we can't protect our children from themselves and each other, and we sure can't protect ourselves.

Freedom is wonderful if we know how to handle it.

We don't, and it's just going to get worse.

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