A Frame of Reference for a Familiar Death

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You hear about killings all the time, more than a few of the victims named Sean, black youngsters in their 20s, full of promise. But you don't feel the pain unless it's your Sean.

Sean Taylor was Washington's Sean, a professional football player who personified safety and defense for the home team -- especially when confronting intruders at his gridiron house in Landover.

When we learned that Taylor had been shot and critically wounded Monday, apparently while defending his home in Florida, we held candlelight vigils and prayed the way we would for beloved kin. And when he died yesterday, at age 24, our hearts were pierced by the kind of sadness that so often gets blunted when the name of the dead is not so easily recognized.

"A ridiculous and unnecessary tragedy" was how Taylor's attorney, Richard Sharpstein, put it. And that being so, how might we describe the 240 homicides in Miami-Dade County last year, 46 of whom were teenagers or younger? Or the roughly 170 killings in the District and the 123 in Prince George's County this year?


The circumstances surrounding Taylor's death are especially nightmarish. You are asleep with your fiancee and 18-month-old daughter, then awakened by a noise in the living room. Usually, it's nothing to worry about. Burglars tend to prefer daylight hours, when nobody is home.

But there's nothing usual about this case. As Taylor grabbed a big knife from beneath his bed and headed for the living room, one or two intruders reportedly burst through the bedroom door and shot him in the thigh, severing an artery. He all but bled to death.

How could such horror befall Sean?

Or Robert Wone, if you still care?

Wone is the 32-year-old lawyer slain last year inside a townhouse near Dupont Circle. He was in his nightclothes, preparing for bed, when someone came into the house and stabbed him to death. Wone's wife recently began making public appeals for help in solving the crime -- before the case, and our memories, grows too cold.

Taylor's fiancee will no doubt be spared such indignity; Wone's widow, and others who have lost loved ones to violence, deserve no less.

In July, within a two-hour span, 11 people were wounded in six shootings in the District. Most of the victims were black men in their 20s. But there were no public expressions of sympathy for them, no bemoaning wasted lives and squandered potential.

"This is a reminder that D.C. is a violent city," Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Committee, said at the time. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called the shootings "unacceptable."

Had we come to believe otherwise?

A month later, in September, five people were killed in the District in 27 hours, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot and killed during a struggle over a handgun.

"We're in the middle of a crime crisis," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). Or is it a moral crisis in a nation where more than 17,000 people were slain last year, more than 10,000 by firearms, and hardly anybody blinked an eye?

The response to Taylor's death has been heartfelt, even though he was not all that different from the young men who die in virtual anonymity on the streets. Taylor was ejected from a playoff game for spitting on an opponent and has faced his share of off-field legal issues, including later-dropped felony assault charges from a 2005 offseason incident involving firearms.

He pleaded no contest last year to two misdemeanor charges in connection with the 2005 incident and was in the final days of 18 months on probation. He had originally faced charges including three felony counts of aggravated assault with a firearm after a confrontation over an all-terrain vehicle. Police said gunshots had been fired into the vehicle.

Were it not for football, his passing would probably have been briefly noted: just another head counted in a mounting homicide tally. That, too, would have been a shame.

"This is the worst imaginable tragedy," team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement.

And then there's the unimaginable: the worst tragedy multiplied by the hundreds, tormenting us with unspeakable heartache every day.


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