Monday, September 28, 2009

The Blood On Our Hands

His name was Derrion Albert. He was 16, by all accounts a bright young man, academically gifted, who was determined to make something of himself some day.

I say "was," because he was subject to a beating, caught on video tape, by other children his age, not far from his school in Chicago, Illinois, a beating which took his life. He was hit repeatedly, kicked repeatedly, and even assaulted by someone with a board. He died later, of his injuries.

The reports are sketchy, as they so often are in such cases. Some think it gang-related. Some say it was a fight between two "factions" at his school, and he was merely an innocent bystander. All agree, that his murder was inexplicable, senseless, and brutal.

Why did this happen? Why must our children be made to suffer?

It would be easy to classify this as "one of those things," or something you see "in a bad part of town," or perhaps a "sign of the times." Have we in America become so lackadaisical, so disconnected from our communities, so inured to violence, that we are simply willing to fob this off as "somebody else's problem?" Would it be easier for us, perhaps, to simply point the finger at the parents, at the school, at the city of Chicago, call them to task for their inadequacies, and go about our business?

Yes it would.

Should we?


Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone who believes in a free and just America. It is always easier to claim that there is "nothing we can do" and chalk it up to a confluence of events over which we have no control. But as one drop of water does not make a rainstorm, the storm itself does not exist without the contribution of every drop it gathers. While the death of a child in a street in Chicago would seem to have nothing to do with you or I, it has everything to do with what we are allowing our nation to become.

We are becoming a nation of bystanders.

It has been long known by those in the field of psychology as they "bystander effect," wherein, when an event takes place and is witnessed by a large group, only those who are strongly self-motivated will attempt to intervene, the larger portion of the group wanting to do something, but fervently hoping or mistakenly assuming, that someone else will take action. It extends far beyond the moment, for even after the event, people are reluctant to "get involved," which is why so many crimes go unsolved, because those with vital information will not come forward of their own volition, sure that someone else will, or that there bit of information is unimportant.

Derrion Albert's beating was an example of the effect on the small scale, but also symptomatic of the effect on the large, social scale. Whatever the impetus for the event, be it gangs, cliques, or some random incident, the fact remains that such situations develop because we do not engage our neighborhood, our town, our city, our state, our country, on any more than a cursory level. We hand responsibility over to others, heedless of the cost, and then are shocked when events such as this happen. There is always a hew-and-cry, heads roll, and for a while, things are quiet, even as the underlying causes and problems remain, and the pressure builds up again. We stand by, assume someone else will take care of things, and go about our business.

There has been a lot written of late of "angry" Americans are. I posit that Americans are angry for all the wrong reasons. We have reached a point where we have ceded control of our country to special interests, to big money, to those who seek to profit from misery, death, and despair. We act as if there is nothing we can do, as if those in faraway places run the show, and we are but helpless pawns, toys for their amusement. We complain, we bemoan, and yet we do not exercise the power that is ours, to force change and to bring our nation to heel.

It is in the hands of every one of us to make sure that our nation is better than it was the day before. It is we who hold the reins, determining who does and does not speak for us. It is we who can demand more of our public officials, who dictate to them how we wish things to be run. No matter how we try, we cannot shrug off that responsibility, for it is imbued in us, by our Constitution and by our birthright. If we wish to have peace, happiness, and tranquility, it is up to us to ensure that these things are brought about, not simply for us, but for everyone.

There was no reason this boy had to die. There is certainly no reason he and other children like him have to die in such a despicable fashion. If we, as Americans, believe in the ideals set for in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, then it is our responsibility, to see that every American need not fear for their life, that each child is safe, warm, fed, and clothed, that no person should go without when there is plenty to be had. If we leave it up to the handful of people we elect, there is no guarantee that our country will be run as befits a nation that fought so hard for independence. If we listen to the voices that say there is no profit in helping others, we stain the memory of those who fought to give us freedom with the blood of innocents. If we do not demand accountability, reason, and above all, compassion, then we have no right to complain as our liberties are trampled. The rights and liberties we take for granted extend to all Americans, not just a privileged few.

Let the death of this young man not be in vain. Let it be a rallying cry. Let Americans be angry about the senseless death and unnecessary poverty that afflicts this nation, and then let us all, together, do something about it. No American can be, or should be, expendable.


  1. Oh Newt, I love you. This is so powerful. Especially this: "It is in the hands of every one of us to make sure that our nation is better than it was the day before," and especially-especially this: "If we listen to the voices that say there is no profit in helping others, we stain the memory of those who fought to give us freedom with the blood of innocents." We Jews call it tikkun olam, repairing the world. We're not required to complete the task, any one of us, but neither are we free to desist from action. The union will only be made more perfect if we act to make it so, and that goes all the way down into the angry streets of hopeless boys, and the children who live and die in fear of them.

  2. Thank you. I think the idea that you should leave things better than you found them is at the heart of our existence as human beings. Whatever advantages each of us has individually, it is not enough to simply pass them on, but to nurture them, make them grow, and spread them. Ideas such as justice, well-being, shelter, nourishment... these are not things that we can keep to ourselves.

    The problem is that we come from such disparate settings, and backgrounds, and points of view, that we allow those things to obscure the truth -- that we are all one species, mankind, and have only one home. No division we create, no belief we hold, no aspect of ourselves we use to judge, can alter that fact.

  3. You've written a string of platitudes. Be more specific; what would you like ordinary Americans - those of us with blood on our hands - to do to prevent this kind of tragedy?

  4. @bacom37: We shouldn't need a road map at this point, but if you need concrete examples, here are the kinds of things we need to do more of in all neighborhoods, not just poor ones:

    - Day care for poor working mothers
    - After school programs to encourage reading, writing, music, and arts
    - Increase the presence of adults in the lives of kids, through new and existing programs

    Neighborhoods used to take care of themselves. People used to work together. Now, we retreat behind our doors and windows, pull the blinds, and ignore the world outside. We put more effort into going to the gym than we do to improving the lives of those around us.

    And I am not claiming to be prefect -- there is certainly more I can do. I just think we all need to find the time to do these things, to steer kids away from destructive behaviors and expand their horizons.