WHEN individuals or groups take advantage of a nation's economic troubles to inflame hatred or to attack "others," most democratic countries that profess a respect for the rule of law aggressively seek to prosecute the alleged attackers.
Whether in Germany, with right-wing violence against Turks and other foreign nationals working in the country, or in the United States, with neo-Nazi "skinheads" plotting to bomb a black church in Los Angeles, the government's response is a significant indicator of its dedication to protecting civil and human rights.
What can be said of a country, however, in which the "others" are its poorest children, and those who systematically kill them, with little risk of prosecution, often are police officers?
That is a question confronting Brazil after the slaying at the weekend of seven homeless boys and the wounding of two others in Rio de Janeiro.
The incident began as police tried to arrest a youth Thursday on drug charges. Someone threw a rock at the police car, breaking a window and injuring an officer. Before dawn Friday, two men later identified by a witness as officers returned and shot into a group of 45 sleeping street children. A short time later the men shot and killed two more youngsters asleep outside the Museum of Modern Art.
According to Amnesty International, between 1988 and 1990, 4,611 children and adolescents had been killed on Brazil's streets. In many cases police never completed inquiries or failed to send them to the judiciary. Many killings are gang or drug-related and occur in urban slums. A Brazilian congressional commission noted, however, that the participation of civil or military police in such deaths were "far from exceptional." They often act at the request of shop owners who find themselves or their custome rs targets of street crime, often at the hands of jobless youths.
President Itamar Franco strongly condemned the shootings. Yesterday, officials announced the arrest of three suspects, members of Brazil's militarized police.
Given the country's extreme inflation, high unemployment, and wide income gap between rich and poor, the problem of the nation's estimated 7 million street children will not vanish soon. All the more reason to ensure that those pledged to uphold the law are not among the people who view those children as prey.