Philadelphia -- Every day in America, 14 children are killed by guns. From 1986 to 1991, the homicide rate among youths 14 to 17 soared 68 percent.
The issue was crystallized in Philadelphia by a baseball-bat murder in November. A gang of teen-age marauders from suburban Montgomery County slew 16-year-old Eddie Polec in front of his church.
The Philadelphia Inquirer then invited youth themselves -- students from across the region -- to submit letters describing their experiences of, and reaction to, youth-on-youth violence.
The response was overwhelming -- more than 1,500 letters. Some replies, reported the Inquirer's Chris Satullo, were scrawled in angry black pencil, others in looping pen strokes, others composed in WordPerfect.
It's not possible to read the three pages of letters the Inquirer printed without being moved by these young people's heart-rending pleas for peace and tranquility, their condemnation of adults' indifference, their pointed critiques of unfettered violence on television, in film and comics.
"Just about an hour before Eddie Polec's death I saw him talking and joking with his friends, so full of life, and only days later I saw him lying in a casket, lifeless and pale," wrote Rebecca Currie, one of the slain youth's classmates as Cardinal Dougherty High School.
"I am appalled by the hostility and hatred in our society. There is no respect for human life anymore. Violence is everywhere," wrote Michele Knobbs.
From Camden, just across the Delaware River, 14-year-old Brian Percell wrote: "Violence in Camden is a bitch. You can't even walk to the store without someone getting killed or hurt. . . . I have known many innocent children who have been killed or hurt. Some as a result of cross fires or accidents or gang shootings. . . . It is probably difficult for any grown-up to understand the pain I feel inside. Nobody wants to talk or listen anymore."
One of the most dramatic responses came from an 11-year-old, Adelle Crump of Holy Cross School in Philadelphia: "Drip! Drip! Drip! More tears fall from another parent's face after another child has been beaten, shot, stabbed or raped to death. I'M SICK OF IT! Yeah, you say cartoons are safe for us, but every day I turn on that television, why do I see blood?"
Christina Johnson, 14, of Masterman High School in Philadelphia wrote "My generation is slowly killing itself. . . . It's time for the young people to take the initiative, stop the madness, stop the violence."
The young people and the adults who care should get a hefty boost this week as a four-part Bill Moyers special -- "What Can We Do About Violence?" -- airs on Public Broadcasting System stations across the country (9 p.m. tonight and Wednesday). The zTC series is heavy on grass-roots examples of young people involved in efforts to stem violence on the streets, in schools and homes.
Five- to seven-year-olds living in shelters in Ann Arbor and Battle Creek, Michigan, describe growing up in homes where they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused. At a "Kid's Club" support group developed by the University of Michigan's Clinical Psychology Department, these young victims are encouraged to talk about the abuses which, untended, could cause them to engage in violent acts when they grow up.
The Moyers show reports on conflict mediation in two new experimental New York high schools, with young people
themselves involved in helping to settle disputes and curtail violence.
The series starts with the story of James Darby, who was murdered in New Orleans on Mother's Day 1994, shortly after writing a plea to President Clinton to stop the killing in his neighborhood. The segment includes interviews with his friends and family, and those who know his alleged murderer.
A separate but related PBS broadcast -- "Does TV Kill?" -- is scheduled on "Frontline" tomorrow.
Television rating watchers may scoff at these efforts. PBS, they'll note, will likely reach a very thin segment of national audiences with its story on violence's impact and potential remedies. Meanwhile, the commercial networks and cable television -- not to mention local news broadcasts -- will carry on with mayhem and murder as usual.
But a broad alliance of public broadcasters, joined by private foundations, national and local civic organizations, has founded an "Act Against Violence" campaign. Starting with the Moyers series, the alliance is pledging at least two years of radio and television programming, national teleconferences to exchange ideas and community- and school-based activities.
It's only a start, and it seems to have missed an opportunity, at least initially, to link up with local newspapers also alarmed by the tide of mean violence in our communities. Still, it's possible this week to report that the outlines of a directed, caring national anti-violence effort are coming into focus.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.