A jarring reminder of random violence

October 13, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- The trees were a big part of the attraction.

There were other reasons, of course, but when I moved my family to Prince George's County in Maryland a few years back, one of the things I looked forward to was living among the trees. There was something about them that fostered a sense of well-being. I enjoyed the sense of remove that came from wandering country lanes winding lazily through the forest.

Seven years later, much of the forest is gone, victim of the nation's crying need for more Blockbusters and Radio Shacks. And suddenly, much of that sense of remove is gone as well, victim of a man -- almost certainly a man -- with a high-powered rifle. Since last week, this individual has been shooting people at random in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

On Monday morning, the violence came to Prince George's, as a 13-year-old boy arriving for middle school was shot and grievously injured. That brought the tally to eight victims, six of them now dead. The shooter remains at large. And how is this for an irony: It's said that he sets up in the forest, fires on his victims from out of the trees.

It's my profound hope that by the time you read this, they've found this sick twitch and locked him under the jail.

If you sense an edge in my voice, well it's different, isn't it, when it hits close?

When it happens across the country or in the next state or even in the adjoining ZIP Code, you feel terrible about it, sure. But it's something else again when it happens in places you know and go. Then it's personal, then it's in your face, then it's something you can't escape through those convenient lies you tell yourself about how it can't happen here.

Because it already has.

I was out of town when the 13-year-old got shot. Got the news from my wife on my cell phone. I thought I was fine with it, thought I was handling it OK. Then my friend Howard called and I heard myself telling him that, had the shooting happened half an hour later, my wife and daughter would have been driving by that very spot. I felt a cold shudder travel through my body. I staggered.

A half an hour, man. Variables of time and space.

It stuns me to remember that I grew up in a place where this happened all the time. In South-Central L.A., warfare between street gangs made random violence routine. Seemed like every weekend, somebody who was just standing there, some baby in its father's arms, some grandmother taking the air on her front porch, was snatched from life by a fusillade of bullets fired by some idiot in a car aiming at somebody else.

And you know, it's amazing what human beings can adapt to when they're exposed to it long enough. Because I don't remember a chill ever climbing my legs back then. I don't remember being staggered at the news that, two streets over, some stranger was dead.

But it's different now, and I find myself wishing I still possessed whatever it was I had then, whatever thing allowed you to travel so easily upon streets of commonplace murder. I don't have it anymore. Instead, I'm left with a sickening appreciation for how efficiently these last 13 months of concentrated upheaval, of hijackers, anthrax and now, a sniper, have driven home a reminder that life can be cruel in its randomness. So it is always a good day to hug your children and find something nice to say to your spouse.

I look at the trees differently now. A sight that used to make me peaceful now just makes me sad. Once upon a time, the woods signaled to me that this was a place of remove. Now I'm thinking there is no such thing.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpittsherald.com.

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