For 3 1/2 months this past summer, Alex Kotlowitz, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covered life in the war zone through the eyes and emotions of a 12-year-old boy and his family. In a front-page story Oct. 27, Kotlowitz wrote about how this 12-year-old had watched men being beaten, seen friends shot and stood over a dying teen-ager who had been gunned down just outside the boy's apartment door.
In the war zone, a 12-year-old has to survive with the smell of gunpowder in his nostrils and the sights and sounds of violence in his daily life. The little boy's name is Lafeyette Walton, and he lives neither in Beirut nor in Northern Ireland. No, Lafeyette's neighborhood is the Henry Horner Homes public-housing project, which is in the city of Chicago in the United States of America.
Only an emotional vegetable could read that Journal story and not be filled with rage at the injustice of an American life only 20 minutes from the prosperous Loop. Reading it also made me miss Robert Kennedy, because if he were alive, the very next day Kennedy would have been at the Henry Horner Homes project. He would have demanded both answers and accountability from those in power. And he would have used his public platform to remind the rest of us that the way Lafeyette had been sentenced to live was unacceptable.
And what about the 12 men brave and true who are today running for president? What was their reaction? Apparently these are candidates of exceptional self-control; their anger was kept totally in check. The candidates' collective silence was identical to that of Ronald Reagan and his attorney general and his secretary of housing and urban development. After all, Lafeyette would be no help in the Iowa caucuses, and he belongs to no PAC.
If just one of those presidential candidates had been moved to go to the Henry Horner Homes housing project, he could have heard, as one public official did, five mothers speak of terror. One mother described the warring teen-age gangs' efforts to recruit her young son. Intimidation was their weapon. When the doors of the elevator her son used opened, there was a dead body to warn him.
A second mother told of an 8-year-old neighbor, already enlisted in a gang, coming to her door with a menu of available drugs and their prices. And if a baby pusher failed to reach his assigned quota of drug sales, he risked being shot in the foot by the gang as an example.
If any presidential candidate had cared enough about Lafeyette Walton and American kids, he would have seen courage face to face in these mothers, who have stared down threats not to talk about these conditions from the gangs and from the authorities. A candidate would have heard a mother testify that any risk to her was worth it for her children. With incredible courage and admirable dignity, this mother said: "Maybe if I'm killed it just might direct attention here, and things might get better."
It is a place where mothers walk their young children to school and then walk them back home afterward so they won't be recruited by a gang, where children live their lives indoors because their playing fields have been turned literally into killing fields.
I don't know why no presidential candidate issued so much as a murmur following Alex Kotlowitz's story. I do know that one public official was moved and did go -- without cameras, press or staff -- and spend hours listening. He did not tell me or anybody else about his visit. But there was determination in his voice afterward when he said that "the situation there is intolerable." These were the words of Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.