Thursday, August 09, 2007

Two Crimes So Dark, Blurring the Images of Two Towns So Different

A memorial to the three people killed at a Newark playground.

Published: August 9, 2007


Instead of a memorial of bouquets and flowers on a landscaped suburban lawn, there are a dozen candles and as many balloons on the aluminum bleachers by the chain-link fence on an elementary school playground.

Instead of the hand-painted yard signs for flowers and sweet corn, there are the billboards offering up to $500 in a program to buy back guns and $2,000 for Crimestoppers tips.

Instead of stunned friends and neighbors who peer at the seared and boarded-up colonial on Sorghum Mill Drive as if contemplating an unknown world, there’s a stream of weary neighborhood folks and friends who venture down the alley to the playground where three young people were killed and a fourth was shot and left for dead on Saturday night. Three of the victims, including the survivor, were college students; the fourth was to begin classes this fall.

“We didn’t know them, but we’re just here to show some love,” said Ken Harris, a 20-year-old college student from the area, who stopped by the playground behind the Mount Vernon School here on Tuesday with another student, John Cavness. “It’s crazy. Young people doing this kind of thing to each other. We’re just here to show respect.”

There aren’t many places more different than the quiet suburban street in Connecticut where three members of the Petit family were murdered last month in a brutal home invasion and the mean streets of New Jersey’s largest city where four young people were shot execution-style on Saturday night.

But in an awful convergence, you could blur the two images and see almost exactly the same thing — good people who didn’t deserve to die, violence hard to comprehend, crimes so dark they took your breath away.

All murder is awful, but, in truth, not all murders are created equal. So in a town where violent death, tragically, is part of the backdrop of civic life, 17 officials led by Mayor Cory A. Booker showed up for a midday news conference on Wednesday, to speak about yet another murder.

The cameras were not there for the stated reason for the gathering — the arrest of Christopher Alexander, 21, who the police say shot and killed Quintez Waller, 23, on Sunday morning in what they described as a drug-related killing.

It was the 60th murder in Newark this year.

What makes some crimes go from horrors to symbols too glaring to ignore is not a simple matter.

In part, without doubt, it has something to do with the victims, but that’s not entirely simple, either. The Petits, who stood out as a successful and beloved family in the comfortable, largely white town of Cheshire, seemed utterly removed from the standard trajectory of violent crime.

But then the four young people shot in Newark stood out, too — students from good families who had no record of involvement in crime but who still couldn’t escape the violence around them.

In part, it’s a reflection of the extraordinary brutality of the crimes. Regardless of race or socioeconomics, there hasn’t been a crime in Connecticut in decades as brutal as the rape, kidnapping, murder and arson that played out on Sorghum Mill Drive. For all Newark’s history of crime, the execution-style shooting of four young people, in a largely middle-class enclave, left people reeling.

JOHN McCLAIN, whose grandniece, Iofemi Hightower, was one of the students killed, has been working as a Newark police chaplain for 40 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “This is like back in the days of Al Capone. This is what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, not in an American city.”

And both crimes resonated so much because they seemed to carry a message. And that’s where the comparison breaks down.

The extraordinary savagery of the attack on the Petits led to a run on locks and security gear, not just in Cheshire, but far beyond. It was, people said, the most chilling reminder that no place is entirely safe from violent crime. In fact, it’s a worthy reminder. Just check out how common home invasions are on Long Island.

But no one, no matter how comfortable, has ever been given a pass from random malice. Being safety-conscious is always a good thing, but it’s not as if Cheshire and places like it are beset by widespread violent crime. What happened there is more a reflection of sickening, random evil than of something people should reasonably fear.

In Newark, the lesson is far more immediate, which is why Mr. Booker, who has staked his career on curbing violent crime here, has the look of a stricken man. Unlike in Cheshire, violent crime really is a daily, inescapable fact of life in Newark and in many other cities as well. Newark can talk about a renaissance all it wants, but the sad truth is the violence that wiped out three promising young lives on Saturday night, if not contained, will kill the city, too.