Another Milestone On the Path to Fear

COMMENT

October 02, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

In the aftermath of last week's stabbing of a Howard High School teacher, school officials dispatched five counselors to the scene to help students cope with what had happened.

Too bad a similar force wasn't available to fan out through the community offering the same assistance to others left stunned by Tuesday's events.

There are at least two ways of coming to grips with our feelings these days about crime. Unfortunately, neither of them seems particularly healthy.

One is to realize that we've let fear take over our lives so that our every response is reactionary.

And when we react, we take sides that we've been "too soft" or "too hard" on crime, as if those are the only choices. It is difficult to build consensus because we insist on simple answers to complicated problems.

We want our solutions served up like fast food; momentarily satisfying, completely worthless.

Police statistics show many crimes on the decline even as our fears appear to be increasing. Our jails are evermore crowded yet our streets are more dangerous. We hear these things and don't have a clue what they mean.

The other effect that events such as last week's stabbing seem to have is to further desensitize us to the truly violent nature of crime in our society.

My first reactions to the stabbing of Kathleen Johnston, who has taught at Howard High for 21 years, were of horror and sadness. But then I was quickly reminded of the world we live in, one in which the trial of O.J. Simpson shows that the rewards of news-gathering is in what it can sell. It is also a world in which crime has to be bizarre to get our attention.

Despite my initial despair about what happened to Mrs. Johnston, I confess that I became numb as I tossed about trying to understand what had happened and what can be done about it. It seems to me that school officials have it right: There will be no security guards at Howard High or any other county school for the time being.

Teachers at the school have been told to use caution when coming to school early, always checking in to let someone know they are in the building. The idea is to watch out for one another.

That may seem like flimsy protection given what happened to Mrs. Johnston, who was robbed and stabbed shortly after she arrived at the school at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. But until police know more about this crime, I am hesitant about the notion of turning the county's schools into fortresses.

At this writing, the victim has been unable to give police a description of her assailants, beyond the fact that they were two men.

How they got in and out of the school undetected was also uncertain.

My reactionary side tells me that none of this matters: Just do something. But the me that is numb says we need to know more.

My reluctant conclusion is that our judicial system is in a shambles. Sentencing needs to be toughened; the concept of an incorrigible person has real credence.

But I also believe that until we are willing to admit that society plays a role in creating criminals and that we must do more to put our children on correct paths, we are only digging a deeper hole.

The recent debate over federal crime prevention funding is a case in point. Social service programs designed to steer youngsters from lives of crime were summarily dismissed by conservatives as "pork." Measures to toughen the death penalty were met with substantially less opposition.

But as Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume stated in a recent "60 Minutes" interview, the programs designed to help people are the kind of pork with real meat.

Like many suburban communities, violence has found its way to Howard County. The horrific murder of Pam Basu, who was dragged to her death by carjackers two years ago, stripped away the county's innocence.

The death of Shirley Rue Mullinix, a home instructor who was also murdered in 1992 at the hands of the student she was tutoring, is still fresh in the minds of many residents.

The Kathleen Johnston case takes its place among those awful milestones of fear.

We are growing older, larger and, unfortunately, more dangerous. What we need now is wisdom.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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