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(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)

The Seduction of War

SUCH stories of violent death might seem more natural in a theater of war -- and so they are. There has been a war in my neighborhood, and it's still going on. Maybe too many people think that this plague of violence has solely to do with crime, as thousands of acts of copycat lawbreaking involving TEC-9s, Glocks, and Uzis have spread across our cities. Maybe it would be wiser to conclude that this is a war like other wars. Often we find wars -- especially other people's wars -- hard to fathom; from a distance they can seem pointless, which fits the situation here. And wars are hard to stop once they get going and passions get loose.

Maybe my neighborhood is like the Balkans or some other corner of the world where war, once started, creates ever more reasons for continuing to fight. Definitely, one critical aspect of this warfare in our streets has been ignored: the powerful appeal that war has for young men whose recklessness is in flower. War draws young men into its orbit; it always has.

My neighborhood didn't raise a generation of cold-blooded killers or, as politicians say, criminals who put no value on human life. Our young men cannot be so different from young men elsewhere. It is true that neighborhoods like mine have lately produced an inordinate number of young people who don't have a clue about what they want to do with their lives. Blame the schools, the parents, TV, or the movies; the result is highly visible -- sweeping aimlessness on our streets. We have men all over the place who are doing nothing productive. Some are angry and hopeless about the future. Some are at war with the way things are; their enemy is the system, order, the police, or people who've made something of their lives.

This area of Washington has also raised a few genuine sociopaths -- scary youngsters like Henry "Little Man" James, a nineteen-year-old who shot a woman dead in a passing car on the nearby Anacostia Freeway because he "felt like killing someone." But most of the combatants are young men suckered into violence by the seductive appeal of warfare. And we've got far too many boys and men available for active duty.

Look down our streets day or night. One mile from the Capitol, at the moment of highest employment in decades, you'll find block after block of idle men. They've been marginalized, ostracized, abandoned. They are drained of hope and initiative. Perhaps with reason, America fears them -- doesn't want them around. So they operate in the alleys and the shadows.

Urban warfare readily wins their hearts, because it is easy employment and seems exciting. Alternatives such as jobs are way off in Maryland or Virginia. The war zone is close by. The recruiting office is on the nearest corner. So are promises of camaraderie and adventure, surely a more thrilling option than stocking shelves at Kmart. Warring -- shooting and being shot at -- is also rich in irony: it makes you feel alive, especially if you are young and foolhardy enough to think you are immortal. And this war has romance: you can listen to veterans talk about the battles they've seen, about heroic deeds, about warriors who saved their buddies from certain death. It's a wonder they haven't started giving each other medals.

Meanwhile, girls who are similarly caught up in a search for engaging activities discover the romance of having babies with guys going off to war. Sometimes it is said that none of this living for the moment makes any sense. The problem is that it makes too much sense. Our children are doing what comes naturally; it makes at least as much sense as World War I.

From the archives:

"The Man Who Counts the Killings," by Scott Stossel (May, 1997)
"On average there are more than five violent scenes in an hour of prime time, and five murders a night.... And that's only network television."

Yet listening to some younger friends, including some who are no longer alive, I've been struck by a startling lack of ideas about what else they could do. Earlier warriors, like Coy and Derek, studied Scarface, the Godfather trilogy, and similar movies and learned about the applications of ruthlessness. Their lives became more like movies, and the movies became more like their lives. What was the difference between Menace II Society and our neighborhood? Not much.

Our warriors loved that movie, saw themselves in it, and recognized its message of doom as theirs, too. We had Hollywood-style car chases, gun battles, and crashes in our real lives. In one instance a potential murder victim in a car chase escaped on foot by running through the plate-glass window of the Safeway. What a movie scene that would have made.

The war on our streets had everything -- from comradeship to adrenaline rushes -- except nobility of purpose. Mainstream America moved closer to granting that last element, too, in its acceptance of gangsta rap, gangsta talk, and gangsta movies. America granted the warriors in my neighborhood their heroic pose, even if the values were upside down. Good was bad, bad was good.

But what can be noble about killing a woman who uses a wheelchair to get around? Where does that fit into the strategic plan? That's what happened on C Street, on May 30, 1992, when Kim Jones, age fifty-four, was shot to death in her car.

The police said that the shooting was drug-related, and there was never an arrest, but the case is closed, because the prime suspect was later murdered.

Planning Your Funeral

I PRESS this idea of a war to make another point. War has social costs that linger after the band stops playing. Post-traumatic-stress disorder and other maladies of the psyche are with us now. It's only logical that people will be jumpy, edgy, depressed, angry, or pursued by demons. Maybe that explains what happened to Cory Lyles, who had seen more than his share of warfare. How many other children's lives are misshapen?

In 1993 The Washington Post ran an article headlined "GETTING READY TO DIE YOUNG; CHILDREN IN VIOLENT D.C. NEIGHBORHOODS PLAN THEIR OWN FUNERALS."

Children as young as 10 have told friends how they want to be buried, what they want to wear and what songs they want played at their funerals. Some young people dictate what they want their mourners to wear and say they want their funeral floral arrangements to spell out the names of their favorite brands of clothing.
Some of these youngsters lived on my street. A psychologist told the Post that the behavior of my young neighbors was "extremely fatalistic." "Once they start planning their own funerals, they have given up," he said. "They are not trying to conquer death anymore." But here is good news to report: So far, to my knowledge, all the children in the article are still living. Their funeral plans are on hold.

Yet it is easily forgotten how many children have been left fatherless by all the killing. Derek Williams had a son. Coy Mason had two children; Coy II was born the day before his father's funeral and was held up before the gathering. One neighbor said the scene reminded her of the moment in Roots when the baby Kunta Kinte, the future patriarch, is held aloft.

I wonder what destiny will call to Coy II if he grows up knowing that his father was gunned down by the police almost at the moment of his birth. What kind of legacy is that? I wonder what will happen to a five-year-old I know of who recently pointed to the courtyard at Kentucky Courts and said, "That's where my daddy got shot in the head."

One of my neighbors claims that more black men died in the D.C. area in the past decade than died in Vietnam. The statement isn't quite accurate, but it's close enough to make one realize how devastating the war in our streets has been. The list of black soldiers who died in Vietnam numbers around 7,000; the list of murder victims in the Washington area in the past decade or so numbers around 5,000, most of them black men. And there's a stigma attached to being one of D.C.'s fallen: people assume that you must have been doing something to invite your death. Your moral standing would be higher if you had been hit by a truck.

In 1995, before the Million Man March, Derek Williams and I and a few others made a T-shirt about the dead from around Kentucky Courts. LET THERE BE PEACE, it said. TOO MANY ARE MISSING. On the back were nine names: Ronald Jackson, 1962-1989; George "ET" Mimms, 1973-1990; Louis J. "Skip" Gilbert, 1972-1991; Tyrone Moore, 1970-1991; Jamal McCauley, 1973-1992; Coy Dontae Mason, 1972-1992; Reggie Plumber, 1969-1993; James "Nu-Nu" Roland, 1969-1993; Thaddeus Latta, 1972-1995.

The shirts became a memorial to those among the fallen who had no memorial. Many of the victims' friends wore them proudly; the shirts were a common sight in the neighborhood that year. Mothers and grandmothers also wanted shirts as keepsakes. As long as people were wearing the shirts, no one got killed, but this was probably coincidence. Eventually the killing picked up again, and for a while it was said after each death that we needed to make a new T-shirt. And then, recognizing that we weren't keeping up, people stopped saying that.

New killings came, but still there were few arrests, no trials. Nearby, at the Capitol, lawmakers railed on about law and order and how nobody is above the law. But our neighborhood slipped below the law, and the lawmakers didn't hear our gunshots.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part one, part two, or part four.)


Jim Myers is the author of Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other, which will be published this month.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors - 00.03 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 3; page 72-86.