What have we come to when four anonymous letters containing racist threats can turn out thousands of student protesters and the press, while the murders of four teenagers over a brief three-week span in a single police district a few miles away in the District make hardly a ripple in the news? If any location in the Washington area could use a little marching, sign-waving and saturated press coverage, it's the 6th Police District in Northeast D.C., where the lives of young people are being snuffed out like those of flies.

But then again, the ceaseless killing of young folks doesn't get much play anymore on talk radio, news conferences or Washington cocktail parties. Race, on the other hand, is always hot.

Hate messages appeared this week on the University of Maryland campus. Two were found in mailboxes of the Afro-American studies department and a Black Student Union officer. Two others were mailed to the Black Student Union office and the Student Government Association, which has its first elected African president.

That the mailings contain racial slurs and threats of violence isn't in dispute. Racist messages are always unsettling and can exacerbate school tensions, even if the threats contained in them don't materialize. They shouldn't be casually dismissed, either.

More than half of the 7,755 hate crimes committed last year that were reported to the FBI were motivated by racial prejudice, according to an Associated Press report. So the author (or authors) -- whether a racist provocateur or a campus prankster -- needs to be caught and punished.

But there are culprits a few miles down the road from the College Park campus who aren't dealing in anonymous threats. And they don't fool around.

Someone meant business when 18-year-old Louis Queen was shot to death on Oct. 30 near 18th and Q streets SE. More than 20 shots were heard that night.

And words weren't the weapons of choice used to attack 15-year-old Rowland Ford and Doniell Smith, 14, as they returned home with friends from a Halloween-night skating party. Four dudes decked out in masks, scarves and bandannas got up close and personal with their targets, delivering their lethal message with guns.

A news story said the Terps rally was emotional. Bigotry can get you that way. But I'm also emotional -- livid in fact -- that 17-year-old Beverly Renee Fletcher couldn't stand with her friends this week on Quarles Street NE without someone driving up in a car and reaching out the window with a weapon to fire a bullet into her chest.

University officials said the vulgar mailings were the most brazen racial offenses in years. No doubt.

But if you want brazen, swing through the 6th Police District, where shame is lost on shooters. You want vulgar? Consider the obscenity of cutting down boys and girls in the flower of their youth.

I don't resent the rally. Large numbers should have shown up to condemn the racist letter writer and support the victims of campus hate messages. But where is the same outpouring of concern over the slaughter that occurs with sickening regularity in our city and surrounding areas? After all, murder comes with a finality not found in nasty words.

These young people whose names show up as victims in Post Metro briefs and Crime and Justice columns are lost to us forever. So are our chances of sharing the benefit of whatever they might have had to offer. They died full of unrealized potential.

Kids such as Rowland Ford, Doniell Smith and Beverly Fletcher stood to gain the most from the level playing field made possible by the historic College Access Act, which became law last week. But as they approached that unprecedented educational opportunity, their lives were brutally taken.

As with the University of Maryland students, they were among the generation of youth expected to train for jobs of the 21st century; to own businesses, manage government and become leaders of the future. Young people are the key to bringing back the city. And so many of them are being killed off.

What does it take to get us as riled up about murder as we do about hate?

Let a ragtag bunch of neo-Nazis obtain a parade permit to march along Pennsylvania Avenue and this city goes beserk. Streets are closed, barricades manned, politicians get all in a twitter and the police chief starts running around downtown in a helmet and flak jacket.

But the nonstop mowing down of kids seems to leave the city's establishment, including the press, downright blase -- as if turning a spotlight on the killings is a waste of time. Murder elicits none of the passion of hate. In this town, there's nothing like the prospect of a racial dust-up to get the juices flowing and the oratory booming.

Maybe that's the answer.

Suppose word got out that all those promising young black men and women being lost to senseless violence are secretly being done in by (drumroll please) "THEM!"?

Let such a crazy rumor take hold and watch as demands for round-the-clock police protection flood city hall -- as thousands turn out for rallies -- as fiery speeches rain down like a mighty stream.

Don't think it can happen here?

All it took at the University of Maryland was a few sheets of paper.