Amid the killing, Baltimore's winter of indifference


THE BOY'S mother wept and had to be consoled. Nearby, a woman shook her head as she gazed at the bloody body in the street. She had never witnessed anything like it before -- except on the news.

The woman was shocked by the ghastly sight of the dead 21-year-old. But mostly she was saddened -- saddened because the senseless murder was reality.

This reality has become increasingly common in Baltimore over the years, but never more so than in 1990. By New Year's Eve, the number of homicides had reached 305. (Six had occurred over the holiday weekend.) This was 92 more than only five years ago.

Hoping to defuse this powder keg of violence, Mayor Schmoke and Edward V. Woods, the police commissioner, recently proposed solutions that, foremost, seek assistance from the federal government. First, they asked that local police work with the government to make sure that major criminals get stiffer sentences in federal prisons. Second, they asked for federal task forces to aid in the prosecution of drug dealers and the confiscation of high-powered weapons. Locally, the mayor and police commissioner agreed the courts should deal stricter sentences. They also want the state to provide additional funding to increase street patrols throughout the city.

These initial proposals to solve Baltimore's runaway homicide problem are admirable. Yet they should be viewed as just that -- proposals, bureaucratic bandages, and not solutions. Yes, it is high time for the law to crack down on drug lords and traffickers. Yes, there needs to be a more concerted effort to get Uzis and handguns off the street. But the mayor must look even further for answers.

To begin, Schmoke should not give up his crusade to take the profitability out of drugs. It is the money in drugs that makes them bedfellows with crime and murder. Although legalizing drugs has obvious drawbacks, it remains Schmoke's only idea that gets to the heart of the matter.

Most important, the mayor must do something about the epidemic. The epidemic is not about the proliferation of drugs. It is about our complacency and willingness to allow blood in our streets. We have become so used to the killings that we regularly tune them out. We are like hibernating bears. We slumber through the harsh, cold reality of our winter, awakening only for the warmth of the comfortable and familiar. Meanwhile, our hide takes on a protective coating against the daily carnage.

We have become desensitized to murder unless it affects someone close to us. Or unless the victim is of the middle class. How else to explain the outcry following the recent murder of a 25-year-old professional in Charles Village? Agreed, the killing of a man for any reason is barbaric. But why wasn't similar sentiment expressed during the year, as hundreds of equally innocent people of little means died in our streets?

Indifference is deadly when it comes from the person pulling the trigger. In November, a teen-ager shot and killed another teen for the victim's basketball jacket. It's unbelievable that this young man could place the same value on human life as he did on a jacket to impress girls and buddies. Such an aberrant act defies the sanctity we place on human life. Why should we pump millions of dollars into medical research that saves and prolongs lives if life is so cheap in our streets?

Why does it have to take the senseless killing of a child, a white-collar worker or 303 other people to make us understand that we face genocide in our city? The mayor was right when he said it is a community problem. More than ever the African-American and white communities need to band together in healing, in action against crime and especially in understanding. This is the only way to fight the indifference that increasingly divides us.

The mayor needs to get involved as well. He must get into city schools and recreation centers to find out how we can instill in our children what they so desperately need: a sense of hope, compassion and pride. For too long these keys to success have been suppressed by despair, frustration and anger, the seeds of indifference in our youth.

Unless we unite to combat the indifference among us, the lines of segregation will harden, and senseless murder will continue.

Andrew Reiner writes from Baltimore.

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