In the face of city violence, indifference

October 08, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN BOWIE yesterday, a 13-year-old boy getting out of a car to go to school takes a bullet in his chest. And so we return to our newly familiar reaction: front-page murder headlines, wall-to-wall television reaction coverage, a tough police chief choking back his emotions while people's nerve endings come undone.

And in West Baltimore over the weekend, three people are shot and killed, and five more people -- four of them teen-agers -- are shot but survive. And so we return to our long-familiar reaction: utter indifference, because they come from somebody else's neighborhood.

Sometimes we seem to live in different worlds down a brief stretch of highway from each other. In the Washington-area suburbs, five people were shot and killed Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday, a Washington man was shot and killed, and on Friday afternoon a Virginia woman was shot and hospitalized. All were struck by single shots from a faraway, faceless sniper; all were going about mundane business: pumping gas, picking up groceries, relaxing on a bench.

At week's end, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, trying to calm citizens unnerved by the apparent connection in the killings, said, "As we go about another workweek and another school week, each of us, in our own way, step by step, bit by bit," has to return to daily routines. Life must go on.

But by yesterday afternoon, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, speaking haltingly to keep his composure, said it was time for parents to turn off their television sets for a change and comfort their worried children.

We should pay attention around here.

In Baltimore, we share the fears over the faceless sniper roaming in that familiar kind of white truck that dots any highway. But the fact that three people are shot and killed here over the weekend, in separate incidents, in our own streets, becomes an insignificant footnote to daily existence.

And the fact that five young people emerged from the 2 Spot Bar, on North Wheeler Avenue above West Baltimore Street, at 2 o'clock Saturday morning -- and the fact that all five were shot and taken to area hospitals -- goes unreported. If news is the unusual, then what's to report about a few more bodies added to the city's routine carnage?

For the record, the five West Baltimore victims are Brandon Nelson, 17, shot in the back; Dayon Barnes, 18, shot in the ankle; Kevin Hart, 19, shot in the knee; Tavon Johnson, 18, shot in the back; and Tyrone Lewis, 25, shot in the hip. All were treated and are expected to survive.

But will our indifference?

In Baltimore, the number of homicides reaches 199. This is up from 187 at this time a year ago. While this goes on, the nonfatal shootings reach 479. A year ago, the figure was 506.

Such numbers cease to move us after a while. A thousand shootings, and they're just numbers instead of numbers of human beings. Their familiarity breeds numbness, which is a second cousin to indifference. We tell ourselves these West Baltimore kids are different from our kids. There was an altercation there. They were coming out of a club, and some weren't even old enough to be inside the place. We think they occupy a different world from our own.

But the shootings in the D.C. suburbs tell us otherwise. When a 13-year old is shot as he starts to walk into middle school -- or anybody's shot while pumping gas, picking up groceries, or sitting on a public bench -- those are bulletins to each of us that we share the same dangerous terrain.

And it's the same terrain that Police Chief Moose talked about yesterday, as he stood before a bank of microphones and urged parents to turn off their television sets and talk to their children.

On television sets each night, we find waves of violence: not only on the news programs, where mothers weep over fallen children, but the endless cop dramas, and the endless and loathsome bloody movies that permeate the air each hour until we become as unquestioning of their message -- that violence solves problems -- as we grow numb to the shootings of young people coming out of a West Baltimore bar.

It is who we are. We are people pathetically grown accustomed to gunplay. We watch our neighbors stockpile guns and cease paying attention to the familiar aftereffects. Or, every now and then, we're shaken from our numbness. Something hits home: Those victims really aren't so different from us, are they?

As we count the bodies, police in the Washington suburbs continue to search for some faceless sniper. The facelessness should give him a strange aura, but does not. Instead, we're jarred by something else: the knowledge that it really could be just about anybody out there.

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