A Failure of Domestic Tranquility

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Paul O'Connor, a white, middle-class businessman who coaches baseball and basketball teams for young black men from the Cabrini-Green public housing project, recalls telephoning one of his players. Because Mr. O'Connor was having trouble hearing the player over the roar of what sounded like a war movie, he asked him to turn down the television. The player said the television wasn't on, that what Mr. O'Connor was hearing was a firefight -- perhaps two gangs settling a business dispute from the drug trade -- outside the player's apartment.

The U.S. Constitution's preamble begins, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility . . ." "We the people of the state of Illinois," begins another constitution, have ordained and established government in order to provide for the "safety" of the people and to "insure domestic tranquility." Hold it right there.


The federal government, in its eerie self-absorption, declares "war" on this and that: drugs, poverty, crime, whatever. But in America's cities, where the irrelevance of government, often including state and city governments, is increasingly assumed, the word "war" is less a silly metaphor than a reasonable denotation.

"This," says Mr. O'Connor, driving through an intersection, "is the DMZ." Crossing this street means moving from one gang's turf to another's, no minor matter. Mr. O'Connor's baseball team plays on a field inferior to another field a few blocks away, but to get to the better field his players from "the whites" (white high rises in Cabrini-Green, controlled by one gang) would have to walk by "the reds," which are controlled by another gang. There is too little domestic tranquility -- too many snipers -- for that.


Mr. O'Connor, who commutes to his suburban office, and his wife, Holly, who works downtown, live a few blocks from the lake in a tidy, placid neighborhood near Cabrini-Green, which is another world. You know, muses Paul, how country kids can imitate the sounds of various birds? One of Paul's players can replicate the sounds of different guns -- .357 magnums, semi-automatic weapons -- including the different sounds of gunshots echoing off bricks, concrete or cinder blocks.

Paul and Holly frequently have some of the players overnight at their home. Last night's guests were Tim and Abdul, who at age 15 have almost made it out of childhood. That is no mean achievement in a neighborhood where some mothers hard-pressed to put food in front of their children nevertheless pay monthly premiums for their children's burial insurance.

Tim is an alert, slight sparrow of a boy who is determined to be a college athlete. Where? "UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas]," he answers, seeming amazed that such an obvious answer needs to be given. Many young men in Michael Jordan's city cling to the hope that sports will be their way of getting out of the city.

Abdul, a lanky amateur rap singer and clothes designer, seems more focused on life's foreground. Understandably. He lives in the high rise where Dantrell Davis, aged 7, lived and recently died, shot by a sniper. Abdul knows the 33-year-old man charged with the shooting. The man umpired some of Abdul's baseball games.

Both boys heading off for a day in ninth grade have made it past one of the milestones of uncertain life in the inner city. It is a melancholy fact, Mr. O'Connor says, that many Cabrini-Green parents -- mostly single women, of course -- make a great ceremony of eighth-grade graduation, renting the graduates tuxedos for a big bash. Given the high school dropout rate of more than 50 percent, and given the gunfire, pride in the eighth-grade achievement is mingled with the bleak realization that there many never be an occasion for another graduation celebration.

In 1991 Alex Kotlowitz of the Wall Street Journal published a remarkable book about two boys growing up in the "jects" (the Chicago public housing projects). The title of the book was the mother's response to his proposal to write about her children: "There Are No Children Here." When Mr. Kotlowitz asked a 10-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up, the boy said, "If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver." If, not when.

When (not if, not if Paul and Holly have anything to say about it) Tim and Abdul grow up, they will have achieved adulthood with precious little help from governments, far or near. Representatives of the city government recently toured Cabrini-Green, picking a spot for a small park perhaps to be dedicated to one, or all three, of the pupils at the neighborhood elementary school who have been murdered in the last eight months. A park is better than nothing -- people in Cabrini-Green lack parks and every other necessity and amenity -- but, really, what a spectacle. This is government's competence: providing memorials to young victims of its dereliction of its elemental duty to insure domestic tranquility.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.