A father is murdered, revealing many evils

March 10, 1996|By Jim Asher | Jim Asher,SUN STAFF

"In My Father's Name, a Family, a Town, a Murder" by Mark Arax. Simon & Shuster. 399 pages. $24

Mark Arax's book about his long quest to discover the truth of his father's murder proves a singular point: Knowing too much is both a blessing and a burden.

The assassination of Ara Arax left an indelible brand on Mark Arax's soul. Any child deprived of a parent at an early age is destined for a difficult struggle. For the Arax family, a first-generation Armenian family dulled by the genocide of their countrymen, the killing tore at their newfound security in California's land of plenty.

But for the author, its impact sculpted a new character in the yet unmolded child. He became an inquisitor and a champion of truth, vowing some day to learn who fired the bullets that killed his dad and why it was done. His preoccupation would later became a profession. Mr. Arax became a writer and journalist. At one point in the 1980s, he worked at The Evening Sun here in Baltimore. Now, he is a writer for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Arax's book - "In My Father's Name, a Family, a Town, a Murder" - is much more than his best attempt to solve the killing. He reveals all his family's blemishes: his father's affairs, his abusive grandmother, his uncle's run-in with the law. The details add much to his family portrait. They are believable. They are not unlike the secrets in many a family. Taken together, they make up much of the book. Yet his skill as storyteller drives you deeper into his work, impelled by the tantalizing hints about the truth of the killing. His family's tale becomes the context for his father's final acts before his death.

Mr. Arax's conclusions about the assassination are startling. And for me, they reinforce a bedrock principal of our common profession.

Ara Arax, his son tells us, was murdered by criminals in Fresno, Calif., fearful that he would reveal their crimes and their accomplices. According to Journalist Arax, the police in Fresno, to protect their common corruption, had a hand in the killing. It was a murder undertaken to ensure that the racketeering of official Fresno continued unabated. It was the oldest kind of crime. It bought silence.

Amid Mr. Arax's tale of the governmental corruption that killed his father is a moral for journalists. He pointedly asks just how things might have been different if the Fresno Bee had not turned a cold shoulder to tips about that corruption.

At one point, Mr. Arax recounts how the city editor of the Bee failed to assign a reporter to pursue information handed to him in the 1960s by Fresno's city manager about the wrongdoing of the city's chief of police. The city editor, Mr. Arax reports, had had numerous drunken-driving arrests voided by the police chief. It apparently was a debt that blurred the editor's journalistic vision.

Such a failing is inexcusable. I believe that a newspaper is a community's independent voice, a vigilant protector of the rights of the people. The tragedy of the Arax family is made much more unforgivable for me by the corruption of their community's inquisitor and the thwarting of their champion of truth.

James Asher is city editor of The Sun. Before, he was an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for 25 years.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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