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McGrath: Confronting our civic nightmare, gun violence

Updated: October 30, 2013 6:22AM



The news that Chicago easily surpassed New York in murders last year (512 to 419) got me to thinking about a certain night in April 1989.

My wife, my three children and I had just moved to an unincorporated area outside Chicago. It was an old two-story farmhouse adjacent to a Cook County forest preserve and surrounded by the woods.

So when our doorbell rang that night and I saw three teenagers at the door, I assumed they had car trouble. But a girl about 16 was weeping. Another girl and a boy about the same age didn’t look happier.

“There’s someone hurt by the road, mister,” the boy said. “Bleeding.”

He told me where, and my wife took them inside and called 911. It would be a while before the county sheriff’s police arrived, so I grabbed several towels and started down the stairs, taking our black Lab Biff along. It had just turned dark. As I neared the road, Biff suddenly stiffened, panting, pulling me forward. And that’s when I saw a man on the ground.

Edging closer, I saw he was a big man, wearing a black leather jacket and engineer boots. He had what looked like a bullet hole in his left cheek, and another, probably, in his bloody chest. I didn’t need to check for a pulse. He clearly was dead.

Though I read about shootings every day, it wasn’t until I came upon a murder victim that I felt the indignity, the evil, the lonely end. Nobody deserves to die this way, I remember thinking.

The sheriff’s police arrived, the teens left, and after I gave my statement, I returned to our house. And that’s when worries set in: Was the shooter still out there? Was my family safe? Will the killers think I witnessed the crime? I slept fitfully, got up at 2 a.m. and walked to the second-floor window. A squad car was parked where the body had been, guarding the crime scene.

That unforgettable night was almost 25 years ago. But I think about it each time I read of another shooting, such as the recent horrible wounding of 13 by gunfire in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. And every night, shootings seem to occur in many of the same communities in the city, such as Austin, Woodlawn, Englewood and Roseland.

Those living in the affected areas are like refugees in a war zone. When they’re not ducking bullets, they’re locking their children indoors and looking over their shoulders. You might say they suffer from mass post-traumatic stress disorder, robbing them of their freedom from fear and to pursue happiness.

Most readers never will witness a shooting victim. And if you believe the comments posted online after the murders, you learn that many believe that shooting deaths in those gang-infested, distressed neighborhoods have little to do with their lives. Or they see no point in wasting time reporting or reading about every single one.

They could not be more wrong. The relentless coverage, as painful as it reads, is necessary and impacting. Newspaper pressure on Chicago officials has led to changes and an increase in policing — credited with a 20 percent decline in the number of fatal shootings so far this year.

The 512 murders in Chicago in 2012 changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. Not just the victims and their families, but everyone directly and peripherally affected — friends, neighbors, witnesses, police, lawyers, judges, counselors.

And no matter where we live in Illinois, we pay a bit of the bill for the bloodshed, for everything from trauma hospitals to prisons to the courts and to the repair and care for families torn apart by bullets. And we also pay figuratively through the devaluation of human life reflected by these numbers.

I learned the story of the slain man by my house when I read it in the newspaper two weeks later. He was 43 and had abducted his estranged girlfriend at gunpoint. Somehow she got the jump on him, shot him with his gun and dumped him in the woods.

I do not need to be persuaded that gun violence is the most serious threat to our communities and our humanity. Those who doubt it don’t need to stumble upon a body. Just pay closer attention to the news.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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