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When someone is gunned down in the street, there’s always someone (the mother, a friend, a passer-by) telling the TV camera that “He was such a good boy.” It’s reached the point of being cliché.

What else could people be expected to say? That he was rotten to the core, and was marked for a life of crime while still in diapers? That sound bite probably wouldn’t make the evening news. No, what they really mean is some variant of “He was kind to his mother.”

(If you’re old enough, you remember when it was routine for the press to use evasive comments like that to avoid saying something offensive or actionable. Is he a crook? He’s kind to his mother. Is he a homosexual? He is not a threat to any woman. These days, of course, the very idea of mincing words is a quaint affectation like saying “Gee, whillikers!”)

These boys (and girls) can’t all have been angels. Many were innocent victims, collateral damage; but many were not. They were targeted for some reason: a turf war among gangs; a drug sale gone bad; looking like the brother of someone who made eyes at the wrong girl; being a cousin of someone who dissed someone’s choice of soft drink. Who knows? Since anybody can get a gun, what used to be settled with fisticuffs at arm’s length can now be handled as a drive-by. At least with hand-to-hand combat there isn’t much danger of some little kid down the block being accidentally killed.

Getting back to my theme, clearly the milieu in which this takes place has accepted murderous behavior as appropriate for a “good boy.” When did that happen? How? The vigils continue, the guerrilla warfare continues in the streets, everyone calls for change but little ever does. Some of us think we should hand out money to people who have never had enough to get by, let alone learn to manage it; others think that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, never mind that they can’t afford boots.

It’s so easy for us “others” to mutter about single mothers, the welfare society, drugs, gangs, and generally imply that “those” people are just incapable of giving a rat’s ass about what their children are doing. If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear racist undertones: “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in our neighborhood.”

Just wait. If you think that Art History PhD living in your attic has trouble paying his student loans while bagging groceries and discussing Kierkegaard with the other cashiers, think about what it’s like for some inner city kid whose parents are working 80 hours a week just to be able to afford enough Black Flag to keep the roaches out of their kid’s beds. 

We might find out what that’s like sooner than we want. These days it isn’t rare for both parents and children to be carrying huge student loan debts, and we’re heading for a third generation. How do you think those kids are going to turn out? Once the bank takes Grampa’s farm, what are the grand-kids going to do? Join gangs? Sell drugs? Become gun-wielding robbers? Hm…

Poverty and wealth are identical twins, but one of them has been starved and abused. Hopelessness is as deadly as quicksand, as hard to get out of as a tar pit. There’s a wind blowing toward the middle class, and it’s carrying a whiff of La Brea. Perhaps the lucky twin, the one who has been loved and nurtured, will eventually share his brother’s fate.

I sure hope someone comes up with some good ideas soon.