FIRST, to disclose a prejudice: Carl Rowan is an old friend of mine. Therefore my inclination was to stay away from a discussion of Mr. Rowan's shooting of a young man who, with some other teenagers, had been using his swimming pool after trespassing on his property very early one morning. But I feel compelled to have my say simply because of what happened about ten years ago to a home we had for many years in Chevy Chase, Md. This home, not too far away from the Rowan residence, is in a largely white neighborhood. Rowan is black. That's what has given this story a different twist.
He is also famous - a former ambassador and a well-known TV commentator, columnist, and lecturer. Also, he is widely known for his support for gun-control legislation. Stories on the shooting have dwelt on this fact, since Rowan was using a non-registered gun in a jurisdiction where this is against the law.
My wife and I were on vacation when we had a phone call informing us that young people had been cutting school and using our home for daytime ``partying.''
We hurried home, not knowing what we would find. The youngsters had departed, but the evidence of their parties was in every room. Two outside doors had been destroyed. Furniture had been overturned. The drinks they brought in had been squirted on walls and ceilings. Cigarette ashes were everywhere. The smell of liquor hung in the air.
We were devastated. My wife cried. She had put her personal stamp of taste and loving care on every room. The home had become a part of her. She said she felt violated.
We immediately called the police. A young detective came within minutes. He told us that ``a lot of this'' had been going on in our area - that it had become quite usual for teenagers to break into homes to ``party.'' He was courteous and showed interest. We spent a long time with him. He took detailed notes and said he would ``pursue the case.''
We soon sensed our problem had a very low priority at police headquarters. When we had heard nothing after a week, my wife phoned and asked for the detective we had talked to. He was not available.
The policeman who answered the phone asked her to go over the details again. He too promised action. Nothing happened - as far as we could tell. A couple of weeks later my wife called again and once more had to go over the full details of our case.
In this conversation she asked the policeman if anyone had checked at the nearby junior high school to see who, in our neighborhood, might have been absent during the two weeks the youngsters had been using our home. He said, ``No, but that's a good idea. We'll do that.'' But we never heard from the police.
We finally found out, to our own satisfaction, who was involved in the break-in. And after several months our house was back in order. But the memory of the incident lasted for a long time.
So it may be understandable that this experience makes me instinctively sympathetic with Carl Rowan's reaction - except for the gun. I'm convinced that gun possession leads to more tragedies than they prevent.
Carl thinks so, too. He doubtless sees that had he aimed a little higher he might have killed that youngster. And that would have been something he would have had to live with the rest of his life.
It should not be overlooked, however, that Rowan had no idea what he was to find in his back yard. He had heard someone trying to get in a window (the police later confirmed that an outside window had been tampered with). He had also, a while back, received threats on his life. And about a year ago Rowan had become alarmed when his housekeeper was robbed at gunpoint at the back door and a house directly across the street was burglarized.
Rowan's own words on the incident should here be cited:
``A lot that is theoretical, ideological is being written by people who have not been threatened, have not had a stranger at their bedroom window at 2 a.m. and have not been confronted by a doped-up intruder just outside their door. Let my political enemies crow. But let them know that as long as authorities leave this society awash in drugs and guns, I will protect my family.''
Rowan's is such a complicated case. Further, all the facts have not been firmly established.
Yet I come down on Rowan's side. I'm, of course, sorry the gun was used and the youngster (out on what he and his friends may have viewed as a harmless lark) was hurt.
I think some good can come out of this. The huge attention given the incident in the press and on TV will be noted by teenagers throughout the United States. It should act as a warning to them that other people's property is out of bounds - and that such trespassing incurs grave risks.
And it should tell parents to apply a firmer grip on their kids - lest they wander into real trouble while frolicking in someone else's backyard or home.
Finally, these kids should be punished for their trespassing on the Rowan property. At the very least there should be a stiff fine. That, too, given the national publicity it would get, might do something to discourage these illegal entries.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.