Random Shots, Hard Questions

How do you regain control of an urban neighborhood?

TWO shots were heard, dulled a little by distance and buildings, but unmistakably gunshots. Not five minutes before, my wife and I had been strolling along the Southwest Corridor Park in Boston's South End around 9:15 in the evening.

The park is beautifully landscaped, a meandering, narrow garden walkway about 20 yards wide and three or four miles long. Years ago, the corridor was railroad tracks slicing through racially mixed neighborhoods. Now a much-used public basketball court and tennis court can be seen from our second-story deck adjacent to the long corridor.

We look out into the evening. Police have arrived, patrol cars with red lights flashing. A 40-year-old man named Thomas Carey has been shot in the back and killed as he walked along the corridor. It is a random shooting.

Eight of us from the neighborhood, who passed by a cluster of black youths wearing hoods just before the shots rang out, are taken to the local precinct station to tell the details of whom and what we saw.

What I saw was fragmentary, a glanced impression of youngsters laughing too much in the shadows. They hid in their hoods as if wearing masks borrowed from some terrible underworld. I didn't see their faces. I know they were very young. There is no way of knowing if one of them pulled the trigger.

This kind of random violence has become common in American cities, large and small. All races are involved - so many youngsters with guns, and so little capacity to reason themselves out of the conclusion that it is right to shoot someone, anyone, for the slightest and most flawed of reasons.

At the police station, reading the notices on the walls and listening to the conversations of men for whom random shootings are all too common, questions came to me: Are we witnessing the massive failure, all at once, of the hallmarks of culture and civilization? Family, church, schools, community? Is this the bottom, where a killing brings neighbors together at a police station as if we are standing on a ledge? Are we yelling for help before another bullet springs from a gun in a young hand?

With spiritual tenacity, with hope and courage, there comes an obligation not to turn from this confrontation. Yet where do we find the sharpened analysis, the new/old ideas to reach out and change what has evolved so badly?

Are we helpless to do something, as essayist and critic George Steiner suggests in writing about the causes of a great evil, the Holocaust? "The barbarism of our time," Steiner wrote, "did not spring out of the steppe or the jungle. It arose in the very heartland of high civilization. Men tortured and gassed in the very neighborhoods of the museums, schools, concert halls, libraries which constitute the anatomy of humanism."

T the police station, I see a photo of a child and remember that the National Commission on Children concluded that our nation is "careless" about our children, no matter the color. So many are unable to function because their families cannot function. The emotional and social costs of this failure have become staggering, even deadly.

In 1991, chairman of the commission, Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, implored that we "place children and their families at the top of the national agenda." He talked in terms of saving children and regaining control of our national destiny. But how do you regain control of a neighborhood?

It is past midnight when we are driven home in a police car. The streets are nearly empty. The officer thanks us for stepping forward. But what we have done seems feeble, too easy.

Are we up to the hard work needed to support community groups, to the weekend or week-night involvement in the projects, discussions, and sharing that bring a neighborhood together? We are stalled in this nether land of doubt and unease, caring that what is wrong be made right. But how to be effective, clear, collaborative?

There are no easy answers along the corridor.

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