Dale N. Burr, a good man and a farmer, killed three people and then took his own life. He shot the president of the bank to which he was indebted, a neighbor with whom he had quarreled, then his wife and, finally, himself. The murder weapon was a 12-gauge shotgun, but the cause of all the deaths, everyone said, was the farm crisis.
That was the universal judgment. The 63-year-old Iowa farmer, who had succumbed to debt and hard times, snapped in a way that was hard to understand. So said his neighbors, the police and, because of them, the national news media. If there were an Arlington National Cemetery for farmers felled by high interest rates and low prospects, Burr would be buried in it. So says everyone.
The conventional wisdom about conventional wisdom is that there is usually something to it. In this case, common sense tells you that a 63-year-old man, facing bankruptcy and staggering indebtedness, out of cash and out of hope, could simply go crazy. Common sense tells you also that hard times could not be the entire answer. Other farmers, some of them much worse off, have done nothing remotely similar. Once again, we are humbled by how much we do not know.
But if Burr had not been a desperate farmer, we might think differently of him. If he had been, say, a black kid in the ghetto, we might think that neither poverty nor despair had any effect on the way he acted.
We do not hesitate to attribute a tragedy in the heartland to bleak economic circumstances. But not since the heyday of the Great Society have we been willing to make that judgment about similar tragedies in the ghetto.
Of course, in both cases we are dealing with stereotypes. The farmer is the hard-working entrepreneur, up against nature, the bank and the vagaries of traders in places such as Chicago. He is honest, thrifty and the embodiment of almost every American virtue -- self-employed, self-reliant and God-fearing.
The stereotype of the impoverished urban black is different. He (or she) is lackadaisical, unsocialized, without ambition, dependent on welfare and, if male, violent.
For most people, the farmer is a distant abstraction. Not so, the urban black.
Logic says that if a farmer could be driven to violence by forces outside of his control, then so could we all, including an urban black. Logic, though, falls victim to both politics and prejudice. Having once believed that social environment provided the whole answer to human behavior, we now prefer to believe selectively that it provides none of it. We dismiss 40.9 percent unemployment among young blacks and its consequences -- social disintegration, poverty and crime.
For some reason, we think that the farm problem can be fixed in Washington but not the problem of urban Washington -- the ghetto that's within walking distance of the White House.
As for me, I want to have it both ways. I believe that, for reasons we do not know, a good man can be driven crazy by the pressures of his environment while other men, just as good, are not as severely affected. I also believe that people have to be held accountable for what they do, if only out of respect for all the other people in the same or worse circumstances. And if that is the case when it comes to farmers on their besieged farms, why is it not also the case with blacks in the ghetto? Why do you get nothing but scorn when you even suggest that poverty, lack of opportunity, lousy schools, brutality and role models who rent women by the hour contribute to crime? Why do you get those looks that say: "We heard that in the '60s"?
Poor Dale N. Burr couldn't take it any longer, and it serves some purpose that what he did gets blamed on, and attributed to, the farm crisis. Maybe some good will come out of this tragedy -- a program, an idea, a growing national concern with what is happening to the family farm.
But every day in the ghetto someone snaps -- goes for drugs, gets pregnant, commits a crime, hits a child, downs a pint, gambles rent money and then goes out to steal the rent, drops out of school, runs numbers or women, and we think (at least many of us do) that it is all a matter of personal choice and that the government, its programs and its money, can't make a difference. That's not the way it works. Hard times kill: on the farm and in the ghetto.