Editorial: Homicide epidemic is mass murder, too

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2013 - 7:00 PM

Chicago's teens without hope resort to shooting one another.

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Dec. 3, 2012 photo: Two boys walk past Christmas decorations in the barred window of a business along 79th Street in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The violence in 2012 has gripped a handful of neighborhoods, including Auburn-Greshman, where the police district's 43 homicides (as of Dec. 21) ranked highest in the city.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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Weeks have passed, but still it's hard to shake free of the mass murder of schoolchildren and their caretakers in Connecticut and to excuse a nation whose gun laws and gun culture accommodate that kind of slaughter.

But if one deranged shooter with three guns can kill 28 people in Newtown, how much worse is it that hundreds of shooters with hundreds of guns can, in a year's time, systematically murder hundreds of young people in Chicago, and in doing so hardly raise an eyebrow?

No flag flies at half-mast for those victims because, as gangland targets, they are perceived not as innocents but as minority kids looking for trouble. "This is the business we have chosen," is how Lee Strasberg explained it in "Godfather II," meaning that the deadly consequences of the gangster life are well-understood by those who choose it.

Even now, whether on the tough South and West sides of Chicago or on the North Side of Minneapolis, some children are so damaged in their upbringing that choosing a life of shooting and dying with their friends feels safer than standing alone to confront the scarier truth: that they are incapable of making it in a competitive world; that they lack the academic, social and cultural skills to succeed even modestly, and that they're fully aware of their deficits.

New York Times reporter Monica Davey's haunting Jan. 3 account of Chicago's homicide epidemic includes the following text message sent by a gang member while attending the funeral of a slain friend:

"Dis preacher like he talkin straight to me. He talkin bout hurts and pain. I cant run from the pain cause its gone hurt me worse if I'm by myself because I gotta think about everything."

Moments later, as he left the service, the 21-year-old was shot dead on the crowded steps of the church.

Amid an overall decline in crime, Chicago suffered 506 homicides last year, a 16 percent rise. Eighty percent were shootings in the city's poorest, most isolated areas. Most involved young, black or Hispanic gang members shooting one another, a ritual so routine that it goes unnoticed in the rest of the city. Just in the past several months, police have recovered 7,000 guns, including 300 assault weapons.

The crime pattern was similar in Minneapolis, where, amid a downward trend overall, violent crime rose slightly (6 percent) last year, although the city has so far escaped the gang factionalism and murder spike that has gripped Chicago.

"We're watching it," said Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who knows that gang violence can spread from city to city. (St. Paul has not yet released its violent-crime numbers for 2012.)

The new Minneapolis chief expects to gather intelligence on the Chicago situation at today's Midwest regional gun summit in Minneapolis. The event, hosted by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, is expected to draw 100 city, police, court and other officials from the Upper Midwest, as well as national experts on gun violence.

Harteau, appearing at a news conference last week to celebrate an overall 30-year low in Minneapolis' crime rate, was quick to say that stopping cycles of gang murders requires a whole network of partners.

"Law enforcement is not the only answer," she said, starting down a long list that, had she finished it, would have included early childhood nurturing, better parenting, better schools and after-school activities, summer jobs and job training, a more attentive probation and community policing system and stricter gun control.

Truth is, children falling through the first of those cracks -- early childhood nurturing -- tend to fall easily through all of the others until their accumulated deficits become so apparent that hopelessness takes over and, for a desperate few, gunplay seems an easier choice than facing life's scarier realities.

The question for governments, nonprofits, businesses, families and faith communities is: Are we willing to do what's necessary to put a stop to this? Or will we continue to shrug our shoulders as long as the mayhem doesn't touch our neighborhoods?

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