Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Al-Qaida? What About Youth Violence?

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Last week I went to one of those Washington-type events people outside of Washington think we go to all the time. I actually don't (I'm generally too tightly scheduled to disappear for a 90-minute lunch, however much I may want to). And who am I kidding? I'm not invited to these shindigs all that often.

Probably for good reason.

It was a lot of big names in a small room, an interview session over lunch with Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona. She offered a very lucid, good-humored and interesting description of what her department is supposed to do. And it has to be said, it's supposed to do a lot.

The department's main job is what you might assume: to protect the country from terrorism, to connect the dots, as it were. To assess the information coming in and get it back out in usable form so the people on the front lines can figure out what they're looking for and how to deal with it.

Under that rubric, the department's job is to secure the borders and to prepare for, respond to and recover from major disasters. That's why you'll hear Napolitano talking about everything from immigration to the H1N1 virus.

So, yes, that's a big job. But here's what I don't understand:

Whose job was it to protect Shai R. Caldwell, a 19-year-old mother who was shot to death in the suburbs of Washington last Tuesday (the night before I attended that lunch with Napolitano)? Caldwell was killed, and three others wounded, while they were celebrating a local high school graduation outside in their townhouse complex. Somebody drove by and shot up the crowd. Nobody seems to know exactly why.

And whose job was it to protect 14-year-old Christopher Jones, who was beaten to death in a different suburb of Washington two weeks ago because he apparently found himself caught between two groups of old friends — who decided they were gang wannabes — and jumped him because he refused to choose sides?

And what about 15-year-old Alex Arellano, who was beaten, shot and burned to death last month in Chicago, one of at least three dozen Chicago school kids who have been murdered this school year alone.

Murdered.

Their lives taken from them before, for the most part, they were old enough to buy a drink in a bar or cast a vote in an election.

Can I just ask you? Whose job is it to protect these kids from the terrorists they are far more likely to face than al-Qaida? Where is the interagency task force on this? Where are the important people sweating it out in small rooms, earnestly working to put a stop to this?

I had a chance to ask Napolitano this very question — politely, I assure you — and she said what one might expect: in essence, that these are local matters and the federal government needs to devote its resources to areas where federal involvement is necessary.

Fair enough, but what I don't understand is, why is it that thousands of people can be shot to death each year — a sickening number of them teenagers — and it does not call forth even a fraction of the response we devote to the flu?

Is it because it is not sexy? Is it because murder happens most often day by day, week by week, so we don't really notice? Is it because we're so inundated with murder as entertainment we've lost sight of how unacceptable this really is? Or, is it because we think, deep down, when we're really honest with ourselves, that if somebody gets killed, he or she probably deserved it?

Is it because, even though the three cases I just told you about involve a young black woman, a young white boy and a young Latino, the biggest surge in homicides over the past three years has involved young black males?

Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox told us earlier this year that from 2002 to 2007, the number of homicides involving black male juveniles as victims rose by almost a third, and as perpetrators by more than 40 percent.

Something is very wrong here. And what I don't understand is, why isn't this even worth talking about over lunch?

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues