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  Even in Sports, There's No Safe Haven

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 1994; Page C1




You can't play tennis without getting stabbed in the back. You can't have a boxing match without some guy in a parachute dropping out of the sky on your head. And now, after yesterday, you can't even practice your figure skating without somebody trying to break your knee with a club.

They say it's the same old world that it's always been, the same old world that it always will be. But you could fool me.

Sports is of a piece with our age. If the front page has drive-by shootings, carjackings, wildings and record murder rates, why wouldn't Michael Jordan's father get shot to death because he pulled off onto a side road to take a nap? Even the arenas that we have set aside specifically for escape are becoming less secure. Maybe that's good in its awful way. Maybe it's time to take a harder look at our society-wide tolerance for violence.

Dana Scarton, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was interviewing U.S. figure skating champion Nancy Kerrigan yesterday after Kerrigan's practice in Cobo Arena in Detroit when a man — who might be called the perfect symbol for the late 20th century — arrived. He attacked Kerrigan with a blunt instrument. He gave no indication of his motive. It was hit and run. Then he escaped.

For Kerrigan, the timing of the attack was, perhaps, even worse than her injuries. Preliminary reports say that she has a severely bruised right knee. What those reports do not say is that, on Friday, Kerrigan was the favorite to defend her title in the U.S. figure skating championships.

If she finished first or second, she would win a spot in the Winter Olympics next month. Kerrigan won a bronze medal at Albertville. This time, at 24, she had her eye on gold. In Lillehammer, Norway, she might easily have been the darling of the entire Games — as so many other glamorous U.S. women figure skating champions have been.

At the moment, nobody knows for sure whether Kerrigan can compete on Friday or will wish to do so. Nobody knows whether the U.S. Olympic Committee will make special allowances to put her on the Olympic team. Nobody knows anything. Except that it happened again. Just like the attack on Monica Seles last April 30. And so much like so many incidents in recent years when the lines of demarcation between the orderly world of sport and the disorderly realm of modern society have broken down completely.

"It was an awful, horrifying type of scream," Scarton said, recalling the sight of Kerrigan lying at her feet in pain. "She said, 'Why me?' "

Why not?

How many of us go through the world these days waiting to have a Nancy Kerrigan or Monica Seles incident in our own lives. I knew a woman who'd lived a few doors from my father in D.C. for 40 years. An old woman, living alone. Last year, somebody knocked on the door. She opened it. Somebody came in and beat her to death. No robbery, apparently. For nothing.

Last month, I asked a friend if he'd read about a particularly senseless murder — two teenagers gunning down an old gas station attendant for $5. He said, "My wife was a witness. She was a few yards away."

We all have stories. Mine aren't even special. That's the point.

We can't prove that violent TV shows, violent cartoons and violent song lyrics lead to violent acts. We can't prove that lax handgun laws lead to deaths. We can't prove that talk show egomaniacs, who peddle demagoguery or pornography, drag down our capacity for civil discussion. We can't prove that peak-at-a-freak TV magazines make us callow.

We can't prove that hockey brawls and football spearings trivialize injury. We can't prove that, for at least a generation, the whole tone of our society has tended toward every sort of physical, emotional and psychological violence. But, deep down, we're pretty sure it's true, aren't we?

Yet we act like we don't know it. We act like we don't have a clue that unopposed violence becomes violence that grows. We're an age that has become too sophisticated for its own good. We've raised tolerance and intellectual hair-splitting to an insane art form.

For instance, almost three months ago, a German judge gave Guenter Parche a suspended sentence for stabbing Monica Seles in the back with a butcher-knife-sized blade.

The judge blathered about the sincerity of Parche's confession and remorse. In her ruling, she said she considered Parche's obsession with Steffi Graf — Seles' rival — to be a mitigating kind of lunacy. The judge even cited the unlikelihood that Parche would put an inch-and-a-half hole next to anybody else's spine.

The judge did not say, "He did it. He's going to prison for a long time."

Seles said she was "shocked and horrified" at the decision and expressed "fear for my fellow athletes, public figures and other potential victims of senseless crimes who have to go out today and tomorrow, knowing that a criminal who commits such an act will not be punished."

Now Seles words seem painfully prescient.

Also last November, a "parasailor" with a large metal contraption on his back tried to fly into the ring during a heavyweight championship fight. He could easily have broken the necks of ring-side fans with his stunt. He was charged with a misdemeanor. Any "punishment" he receives will, presumably, be insignificant in relation to the danger to which he exposed others.

If the cops catch the guy who hurt Nancy Kerrigan yesterday, he better not slip through our justice system like the Seles attacker. Any place is a good place to start setting an example. Let's not spend too much time asking him, "Why?"

WHO CARES?

He did it. He's responsible. He should be punished.

Every social pendulum swings. Hopefully, we'll live to a counterstroke to balance out a generation of excessive leniency. We need to spend less time concerning ourselves with the mysteries of the criminal mind and more time catching the bodies attached to those minds and sending them to jail.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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