How could young black people lose all sense of respect for time and place?" asked Dr. Acklyn Lynch, a D.C. resident who is a professor at the University of Maryland. "Nobody said, 'No, we can't do this!' Why was there no sanity, no one to shout or scream? Why was the herd instinct so great that everybody got into the act?"

Questions like those about the brutal killing of Catherine L. Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of six, are disturbing many District residents.

Robbery frightens but does not really shock us; it happens too frequently in our town. Even murder has lost its ability to shock us. Murderers and their victims tend to be persons we don't know or particularly think about. But the sheer savagery of Catherine L. Fuller's death -- prosecutors say she suffered massive injuries from being beaten, kicked and having a pole thrust into her rectum -- as well as the crime's inexplicable nature -- prosecutors say a coin purse and some jewelry were taken -- forces us to look at our society in some new ways.

Ten young persons accused of Fuller's murder are now on trial in D.C. Superior Court. They have all pleaded not guilty. Two other people have pleaded guilty to charges in the case and another faces a later trial. And, authorities say, their investigation continues.

What could have happened in a life to cause someone to cross the line between the unthinkable and the doable? Could the roots of such behavior be in the oppressiveness of one's environment or in the brutalization suffered as a child?

The sad and frightening fact is that our society has produced some Frankenstein monsters who walk the streets without compassion. "They have been produced through a disturbed social process," says Dr. Frances Welsing, a psychiatrist, "and black people are going to have to get on top of it."

On the afternoon of Oct. 1, 1984, Fuller left home to go to a nearby store to buy medicine for a sore ankle. According to police and transcripts of some defendants' police statements, Fuller had been seen stuffing money into a change purse and tucking it into her bra.

According to the prosecution's account, Fuller was followed by a group of young people who had congregated in a park, dancing to and singing a Chuck Brown song about the need for money. The group, prosecutors say, forced Fuller into an alley and kicked and beat her. Attempting to steal her jewelry and money, they dragged the 99-pound woman into a glass-strewn, abandoned garage. There, prosecutors say, her assailants did the unexplainable -- they held her down and a foot-long pole was rammed into her rectum.

In testimony during the ongoing trial, witnesses have described how Fuller was battered to death.

"I saw Levy putting a [pause] he was putting a [pause] he was putting a pole in the lady," sobbed one witness, Linda Lee Jacobs, 15, referring to Levy Rouse, 20. One participant described a scene of mass "pushing and shoving" as all the young people tried "to get in their lick" on Fuller.

The trial is painting a picture of what it is like to grow up in the Northeast neighborhood where Fuller was killed and where all the defendants live. Several of the defendants were school dropouts who had police records, fathered children out of wedlock and used drugs.

This sad profile is a common one for too many of our city's young people. So this question must be asked: What has our political and economic system offered these young people? "Very little," says Dr. Delores Parron, associate director for special populations at the National Institute of Mental Health. "We had some efforts in the '60s, but then the Vietnam War got going and short-circuited them."

Guns versus butter is an age-old issue. The shock of the slaying of Catherine Fuller reminds us that the degradation of poverty can make animals -- or victims -- of us all.