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The victim and the killer both casualties of ongoing war

The Baltimore Sun

Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn, N.Y., I was accustomed to the daily barrage of shots fired in the middle of the night by anonymous "gun clappers." At age 12, I went to my first funeral of a childhood friend who had been killed by a bullet, which remained lodged in his 13-year-old body.

It wasn't until I attended that funeral that I realized that those bullets weren't anonymous, and neither were the "gun clappers." They were also classmates, next-door neighbors, kids I rode the city bus with on my way home from school.

When I think back to that day, remembering how alive my friend looked in the stiff casket, I often wonder whether another life had been lost - not just that of my "good" friend with a bright future, but also that of the "bad" kid who had shot him.

Seventeen years later, living here in Baltimore, I am still haunted by this question - especially when I can recall the spelling bees, talent competitions and junior high school proms that I shared with some of the so-called bad kids.

I met Zachariah Hallback a few years ago while working as a counselor in a youth program at a local Baltimore high school. He struck me as a charming young man with an adventurous spirit, who seemed surprisingly unscathed by the challenges of growing up in East Baltimore. This month, Zachariah, an advocate with Baltimore's Algebra Project, was killed in a robbery across the street from City College High School.

As the national debate over the use of the death penalty has intensified, proponents could easily point to murders such as Zachariah's to justify its use. But even a "just" punishment doesn't answer the question: How can these senseless crimes be prevented?

Millions of dollars have been spent on juvenile detention facilities and prisons in the expectation that there will be a continuous flood of young men to fill them. Author James W. Frick said, "Don't tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money, and I'll tell you what they are."

The perpetrators of random acts of violence seem to be getting younger and younger. How many times are "bad" kids ignored, even given up on, before they determine that their life has no value - and that neither does anyone else's?

No one has been arrested in Zachariah's murder. But it's easy enough to imagine who might have shot him and where he came from, because we've read too many stories like this one. As someone who has worked with "bad" kids, it was uncanny to me how familiar - almost clich?d - their experiences were. Many had witnessed at least one murder, had at least one drug-addicted parent, had a family income below poverty level, had struggled in school, had experienced abuse of some type, had lost someone close to them to violence.

Did Zachariah's "gunboy" grow up with only one parent? Was there lead paint in his house? Did early aggressive behavior lead authorities to label him a "problem child"? Did he move frequently, shuffled among various relatives? Did alcoholism, drug addiction and even physical or sexual abuse disrupt his young life?

In such a case, it's not terribly hard to predict the future. School expulsions, foster care, social workers - hopelessness. In time, the boy becomes a young man who then gets hold of a gun. On the day he robs and kills someone like Zachariah, what is he thinking or feeling?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines war as "a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states or parties." We have condoned a war that is destroying our city and stripping us of our most valuable resource - our young people. That, too, is a crime.

Makeda Crane is the executive assistant for The Sun's editorial board. Her e-mail is makeda.crane@baltsun.com.

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