Steinberg: Mere words, like bubbles, puffed at unending tragedy

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Arshell Dennis, 19, a son of a Chicago Police officer, was shot and killed early Sunday in the Wrightwood neighborhood. | Provided photo

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On Monday mornings, along with the traffic and weather, the AM radio news station presents the butcher’s bill from the preceding weekend of violence: 40 shot, nine killed, most recently.

An average summer weekend in Chicago.

And those listening, getting dressed, process that information or, most likely, don’t. Which is why the reporters at the station pull a few individuals out of those stats — a 6-year-old girl, shot exiting a car. The 19-year-old son of a police officer, home from college, killed on his front step — in an attempt to raise a tingle in the audience’s anthracite hearts.

Because I have my own 19-year-old, also home from college, sleeping upstairs, I thought about that particular victim more than the rest. We all draw the circle of concern, with ourselves at the center. We encompass our family. Our neighborhood. Then the circle closes. Who includes the whole city? Chicago is a big place.

It’s such a fraught subject I can see why most shun it. I usually do, first, because who wants to make a point, even a valid point, using the death of someone’s child? I wouldn’t even try, except for the certainty that, in the wake of such heartbreak, the parents couldn’t care what some fool says or doesn’t say in the newspaper.

Second, what is there to say? “In what world is any of this OK?” works, to quote Peter Nickeas’ jarring piece on street violence in the September Chicago magazine. Our world, obviously. If not “OK,” then certainly accepted. To claim otherwise is putting on airs. The notion of ‘solutions’ is a farce, gilding the horror with a false veneer of hope. Every problem — broken schools, few jobs, abundant drugs — feeds into the dysfunction that sets people shooting at each other, hitting innocent victims.

Solve that in 650 words.


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Even the idea of innocent victims is offensive. Trying to keep the circle of concern tidy, we cull the supposed wolves from the lambs, and go through the motions of mourning the pure, as if affiliating with a gang weren’t a requirement for survival in parts of the city, as if having a few scrapes with the law were a death sentence that makes a teenager deserve whatever he gets.

You could focus on guns. Guns make it so easy to take away someone like Arshell “Trey” Dennis III, the son of a cop, a bright kid about to begin his junior year at St. John’s University in New York, home to surprise his sick mother on her birthday. That detail was another chink in my armor. My older boy did something similar last December. An unexpected visit home for a cousin’s wedding. His idea. Bought the ticket himself. I picked him up from the airport under a ruse, hid him upstairs. His mother screamed to see him, she was so surprised and happy.

Different parts of town, different mothers, different screams. Between them, a chasm, like that separating the sick and the well. Who can cross over, who can pretend to understand? So we just shake our heads, helpless, and puff empty condolences in their direction, like blowing bubbles. Mere words.

If we are truly a city, then the problems of one part should matter to the others. If we are truly one country, then what affects some citizens should affect the rest. An American Marine shot by an insurgent in Iraq would be considered a hero, would be celebrated and mourned. Why? Because he was doing his duty, serving America. Wasn’t Trey Dennis doing his duty as an American? Working hard, being a good son, pursuing his dream? Wasn’t he cut down by our common enemy, the nihilistic, random slaughter that wears many masks but is really the same thing underneath? The same failure to value the lives of others the way we value our own. To cherish other children as if they were our children. If Trey were my son, I’d find a way to say something. Of course it is inadequate; that’s not a reason to remain silent.

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