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13-year-old arrested in Baltimore murder a reminder of our underlying conditions | COMMENTARY

Toni Torsch, whose son Dan, 24, died of a heroin overdose, holds a locket she wears which holds pictures of the two of them.
Toni Torsch, whose son Dan, 24, died of a heroin overdose, holds a locket she wears which holds pictures of the two of them. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

There was a thought, back in the spring, that the developing pandemic from the coronavirus would give Baltimore a break from the grinding violence that has plagued the city for years, the previous five in particular.

But here we are, approaching the end of 2020, the sixth consecutive year with more than 300 homicides. Mere math makes this category of mortality secondary to the death toll from the pandemic across Maryland (5,152 as of Thursday) and the country (307,770). But the killings are a reminder, if anyone needed it, that we — and I mean America, not just Baltimore — had plenty of problems before the coronavirus arrived.

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We are a nation of underlying conditions.

Forgive me for going here again but it was unavoidable. Last Friday, on the southwest side of the city — the 1800 block of Cole Street, to be exact — a 40-year-old man from western Pennsylvania bought some heroin and ended up dead from gunfire.

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The police charged a 13-year-old boy with his murder.

Thirteen.

That means some time within the last year he was 12.

Even in gun-infested, violence-infected Baltimore, even during the pandemic and even during the last weeks of the worst presidency of my lifetime, I reserve the right to be shocked and to die a little at news of such a tragedy.

“Dies the victim, dies the city,” the late Jimmy Breslin wrote 40 years ago, and he was onto something — and not just about New York.

There are many ways to measure the quality of life in this country — whether we have free and fair elections (we do, and just did), whether there is generally good access to consumer goods and food (there is), whether there is a safety net for the elderly and disabled (there is). But then there’s the rest of it, our underlying conditions — the violent, despairing, sick, addicted, poor, homeless, divided, misinformed, uninformed, unfulfilled and angry America that bleeds or screams into the news every day.

And it’s not just urban America, the “Democrat-run” cities that President Donald Trump and his followers take glee in ripping, as if cities are foreign states deserving scorn rather than American communities needing help.

Fact: People have been driving into Baltimore from suburbs and rural areas for years to buy heroin. Drug addiction does not recognize political boundaries or social class.

Not far from where the 13-year-old is alleged to have shot Chad Jordan of Jefferson, Pennsylvania, there is a popular drug corner that, until it was exposed in The Sun last January, appeared as a “Payback Pharmacy” on Google Maps, apparently to make finding its location easier for out-of-state customers.

A couple of years ago, the Dolan brothers, Bill and Joseph, went to a street in Woodberry and bought some powerful heroin from a guy Bill knew. Joseph drove back to his home in Pennsylvania, used some of the heroin and died from an overdose. Police in York County charged Bill Dolan with contributing to his brother’s death, and a little while later Bill died from an overdose.

You die a little when you hear these stories — some horrible tragedy befalling a family, befalling a city, befalling a country.

We had a pileup of problems before the coronavirus arrived, caused illness and death and badly damaged the part of the economy where people work in service to others — the blue-collar workforce. Life there was already harder and less stable than the Trump-touted, pre-pandemic employment numbers indicated. Despair has been coursing through a good part of the American population for decades, and it has been well documented.

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This month, sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin published the results of a study of 11,680 men who had been high school seniors in the early 1980s. Those who had expected to find decent jobs without a college degree and who later faced declines in the job market were nearly three times as likely to suffer early deaths by suicide and drug overdoses as men who gained a bachelor’s degree.

Life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen in recent years, something not seen since the pandemic of a century ago.

Overdose deaths have been on the rise and jumped another 4.6% to nearly 71,000 in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There were more than 48,000 suicides in 2018, marking a steady increase in nearly every state for two decades, according to the CDC.

Things have gotten worse during the pandemic.

In another study, published this week, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found a rise in suicides across Maryland during the early stages of the pandemic (March to May), and most of the increase appears to have been among Black Marylanders.

Economic data from the state shows that the recession from the pandemic has hit Marylanders who can least afford it the hardest; men and women in food services, for instance, have had some of the highest rates of unemployment during the crisis.

Given that people without wealth and influence are hardest hit, is it any wonder Congress has taken so long to provide more relief for the unemployed? Republicans who three years ago this week gave enormous tax breaks to the wealthy and to corporations want now to hold the line in spending on recession relief.

So you can add political dysfunction and miserably upside down priorities to our long list of underlying conditions.

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