Around 5 p.m. on the Fourth of July — the day we laud the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — as I was firing up the grill for the family cookout, James Oh, 76, and his wife, Soonai Oh, 66, were being robbed at gunpoint by two men at the Ohs’ corner store near my home in Petworth. James Oh died four days later from a blow to the head that he received during the robbery; his wife is recovering from her own blow to the head.
The neighborhood is devastated. Toys, notes, stuffed animals — the customary paraphernalia left at homicide scenes — are at the door of the Gold Corner Market on Colorado Avenue NW.
I wasn’t a regular shopper at that store. But it was closer to my home than Giant or Safeway so I would occasionally stop by when short on bread or milk. James Oh was always businesslike and rather stoical, in contrast to my gregarious neighbors; nevertheless, a lot of us always seemed to be coming and going.
The assault and robbery didn’t make the news on the Fourth. No surprise.
Oh became newsworthy the day he died. In terms of inches of newsprint initially devoted to his slaying, though, it apparently was not that big a deal. His homicide was hardly unique.
Our nation’s capital, as of July 11, has had 64 homicides this year. That’s up from 43 at the same point in 2013; a 44.8 percent increase, according to the D.C. police.
Hear any complaining about the killings? Naw, we’re used to it.
In this city, we measure success by comparison. Twenty years ago, the year ended with 399 homicides. So we’re making progress, right?
Besides, we prefer to worry ourselves sick about bicyclists riding on sidewalks , streetcars on H Street NE, a new soccer stadium, yoga shop taxes and making the city hospitable to pot smokers. You know, the “important” things.
City boosters say that if homicides get you worked up, check out Chicago: 14 people shot to death last week, nine over the three-day holiday weekend, when at least 60 other people were shot and wounded.
James Oh notwithstanding, the District isn’t so bad in comparison.
Face it: We in the media treat murder in the District as a run-of-the-mill story unless it involves a “name,” is particularly gruesome or occurs on a slow news day.
And don’t just blame the media: We Washingtonians profess to care about the human suffering, but we can hardly wait until the commercial break. Even when bothering to think about the tragic event, we tend to lock onto simple sympathy for the victim.
We overlook — no, we evade the truly chilling and ominous condition plaguing our community: predation.
The Ohs’ attackers were described as 17 or 18 years old. If police accounts are accurate, the youths attacked their prey with all the deliberateness used by predators in the natural food chain.
They stalked. Using teamwork, they sneaked up, ambushed, subdued and seized what they were after.
In the natural world, predators use teeth and claws. Our young men used a gun and brute strength.
In the wild, predators feed on other creatures who share their habitat. In our society, predators feed on other members of the community. We, the prey, try to hide, locking ourselves behind closed doors, hoping our turn isn’t next.
We know they are out there. Some of us even know who they are. “He grew up down the street.” “His grandmother goes to my church.” “He was a problem in school.”
Oh, we know them. They are the kids who are always trying to con people and use their friends. They are the boys who have no problem telling lies.
What do you think they did after beating and robbing the Ohs?
Do you think they were ashamed and remorseful? Or were they proud of themselves for “getting over” on the Ohs?
When caught — trust me, I have seen many cases like this, and they will get caught — they’ll probably say they are sorry. Relatives will tell the judge about early behavioral problems and a lack of support growing up, all of which may be true. Childhood trauma is no myth. Look beneath the surface, and you’re likely to find examples of abuse — the kind a kid won’t outgrow — and problems that need treatment.
Before getting caught, those two young robbers probably won’t give a second thought to what they had done: how they wrecked the Oh family and what they did to my Petworth community.
There’s a word for their behavior: sociopathic. It is the condition, the personality disorder driving the statistics. It is the modern development that makes a mockery of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It has taken hold in our midst. It has taken down the Oh family. These killings and their perpetrators tell us something about ourselves. We have raised, or allowed to be raised, a generation of kids who, without shame or guilt, can do the most godawful things to the innocent and vulnerable.
It is that from which we avert our gaze.
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