"A 16-year-old sophomore at the District's Cardozo High School was fatally shot at an entrance to the school yesterday, allegedly by a 14-year-old freshman with whom he had been arguing, D.C. police said."
-- The Washington Post, Jan. 6, 1995
"A 16-year-old student at [Cardozo] high school was shot in the leg yesterday after a lunchtime argument with another student, who fled afterward and later turned himself in to D.C. police, authorities said."
-- The Washington Post, April 2, 2003
In the eight years between Cardozo Shooting I and Cardozo Shooting II, we've put on a display of gunfire in the nation's capital that would make the battle of Basra pale in comparison. Well, that's not quite true, but read on. There's simply no telling how many people in the city have been threatened with a weapon, shot at or shot and wounded since 1995. We do, however, have a better handle on the number of killings that have taken place, inasmuch as the dead can't run away.
Since 16-year-old Antar Hall was pronounced dead at the beginning of 1995, more than 2,300 men, women and children have lost their lives to violence in Washington. That death toll far exceeds the number of American troops killed in action during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the current Operation Iraqi Freedom. And unlike Americans in uniform who lost their lives fighting a foreign foe on behalf of their country, the D.C. slain often fell victim to friends, neighbors, acquaintances and aggrieved parties who were indulging the basest of human motives: greed, revenge, envy, hate and the desire of the strong to prey on the weak. The amazing thing is how we react to each incident as if it has never happened before. Take the school shootings.
In the aftermath of Cardozos I and II, the responses were much the same: shock and hand-wringing about unlocked exterior school doors, and calls for more alarms, cameras, security officers and metal detectors. And, of course, each incident elicited pledges from officialdom to make schools and students safe and secure. In the years since Hall was killed, we've heard similar "safer schools" pronouncements from school superintendents Franklin Smith (1991 to 1996), Julius Becton (1996 to 1998), Arlene Ackerman (1998 to 2000) and Paul Vance (2000 to who knows when).
Still, bullets keep flying and mothers keep crying.
The first Cardozo shooting also led to demands for a better battle plan against D.C. street violence. And after Cardozo II, city politicians, like clockwork, began clanging the bells for more security. Now, as then, we are hearing calls for a change in police leadership, as if the problem of kids trying to kill kids is one for the police chief to solve. Since Cardozo I, the District has had three police chiefs: Fred Thomas, Larry Soulsby and interim chief Sonya Proctor. Now community activists and council members are working themselves into a snit over Chief Charles Ramsey, whom they want to send packing after five years on the job.
Look, folks -- it's time to start speaking truth. Speaking it in love, perhaps, but by all means speaking it. And that means sharing some unpalatable thoughts. First, no police chief is going to prevent residents in this city -- whether they are young or old, male or female, straight or gay, black, brown, yellow or white -- from strangling, beating, stomping, stabbing or shooting each other to death. Neither will, as a matter of fact, candlelight vigils, workshops on police-youth relations or the presence of the nation's toughest anti-handgun laws. Let's back off from the easy, feel-good stuff and take a hard, close look at the source of the problem: ourselves and our children.
A fellow named Francis DeSales wrote about kids killing each other in Arkansas. His words resonated all the way to this city. If I have it right, they go something like this: Almost everything children learn is by imitation. They get it by example, and they get it fast. You wonder why there was a Cardozo I and II? And why an 18-year-old was found shot in Southeast Washington on Monday night, and why another 18-year-old was shot to death last Saturday in Forestville? And why they were among 13 people recently murdered in less than 72 hours in Washington and Prince George's County? There's no mystery why there are people out there who are acting cruelly and selfishly. "They've learned it," DeSales says.
Now let that sink in.
Our children are imitating what they see in their homes and in their communities. The people they mimic may be respected or revered, esteemed or feared. But they are the examples being followed. Children learn well, notes DeSales. Sure it's easy, perhaps too easy, to point an accusing finger at forces beyond our control as the reasons for the mayhem. It's true that many of us have been dealt poor hands. But that is not the whole truth. It's also a fact that many of us are teaching our children the wrong lessons.
If we ourselves are less tolerant and forgiving, quick to pounce and get in somebody's face, why should our children be any different? If, through watching us, our children learn that revenge and retaliation are just fine as long as you hit back harder when you are hurt, then who the hell are we to be shocked or to go about weeping and wailing if it turns out that our children end up in police custody or on a slab at the morgue for shadowing our footsteps? If we act as if the lives of others have little value, if we treat our children as if their lives have little value (and we do when we don't have time for them), then why oh why are we surprised when we learn that they treat others the same way at school or in the neighborhood?
There is something terribly wrong in our community. And we know it.
There is, as Kim Montroll of Good Shepherd Ministries put it, a systematic brokenness in the lives of many children in our city. Most of those children live in poverty -- a poverty of physical belongings, and a spiritual poverty as well.
So tonight, after this column is put to bed, I am going to spend the evening with the great staff at Good Shepherd Ministries in Columbia Heights. They, like many other unsung heroes and sheroes in the District, know that the police chief, metal detectors and trigger locks aren't going to provide structures, opportunities and hope for kids without values, consciences or strong families. The police department alone is not going to ensure that these kids reach adulthood with healthy options for their lives, including preparation for college and good jobs. Where other adults are falling down on the job, groups such as Good Shepherd are offering children a vision of what life can be.
While top officials of this city pursue a Major League Baseball team, organizations such as Good Shepherd are focusing on growth in education and character, and on teaching kids how to be of service to others. Tonight we're going to spend time talking about what else we can do as a community to pick up the slack. To wait on the city and others to act is to invite a Cardozo III.
P.S. Many, many thanks to those of you who wrote and called this week about you know what.