Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2003 / 12 Tishrei, 5764

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Never too young to kill | Four.

That, in case you hadn't heard, is the age of the latest child at the center of the latest tragic shooting.

Too young for kindergarten, too young to tie his own shoes, too young for bikes without training wheels. But old enough to stand behind a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and squeeze the trigger.

It happened just over a week ago in Palmer Park, Md., a suburb of Washington. According to a published report, 10-year old Katina Brice was home baby-sitting her younger siblings while their parents were out when she saw that the youngest child had somehow gotten hold of the gun. Katina smartly decided to usher Gregory, who was 7, and Kimberly, who was 5, out of the house.

But it didn't help.

The bullet tore through the front door, taking Gregory in the back, continuing through his body and striking his sister in the upper torso. When police arrived, the 4-year-old was standing in the doorway crying, asking if everybody was OK.

They were not. His sister was dying, his brother critically injured, though doctors expect him to survive. And here was a family - yet another family - that would never be "OK" again.

Police have yet to determine who if anyone was guilty of negligence here. Putting that question aside, it seems obvious that anyone who would put a 10-year-old in charge of children even younger was, to put it mildly, not thinking.

It makes you cringe at the choices made by people for whom what should be obvious somehow never is. And maybe wonder why so many of us find it necessary to have such fearsome weapons in our homes in the first place.

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The usual answer, of course, is fear. Fear of the mugger in the alley, the prowler in the darkness, the thief in the night. We arm ourselves to defend ourselves. Or so we say.

The curious thing is that there is actually little to fear, relatively speaking. In the 1990s, crime rates in this country dropped to historic lows. No, we didn't reach nirvana. Still, it was safe - or at least much safer - to walk the street, to stand on the porch, to jog in the park.

But it didn't feel that way, did it? There was no grateful exhalation that the long siege was over. We still went about clenched, on guard and, some of us at least, exceedingly well-armed.

In his Academy Award-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine," liberal filmmaker Michael Moore makes a compelling case that what endangers America most is not the crime we fear, but the fear itself. A fear stoked by shrill and sensationalistic media that trumpet every street murder and bank robbery as an imminent threat and elevate even shark attacks and escalator mishaps to the level of crisis.

Fear becomes the background hum of our lives. We live with a pervasive, never-ending dread that leads us to feel endangered even when we are not - and warps our perceptions and reactions accordingly.

Other nations, argues Moore, have America's bloody history and violent movies. Other nations have America's poverty and breakdown of the nuclear family. Other nations even have America's love of firearms and easy access to them.

Yet other nations don't have America's gun violence. Don't have 4-year-olds armed with semiautomatics.

The shocking thing is that it's not shocking. Not anymore. Not after shootings by 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill and 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham. Not after the 6-year-old who killed his classmate in Flint, Mich. Shocking? No. You read about it and you turn the page.

We arm ourselves to protect ourselves from things we fear. Yet somehow, the specter of children with guns has become just part of the landscape, part of The Way Things Are. We have become used to it.

If we want to be scared of something, maybe we should be scared of that.

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