Murder on their minds

Every time I read another tragic story about race-related murder I wonder if we've really come very far in our social evolution. It's even sadder and more shocking when the homicide is committed by the very young.

Last month, 7 teenage savages in Patchogue, Long Island, singled out a Hispanic man for a beating that ended up taking his life. Jeffrey Conroy, 17 years old, stuck a knife into the chest of Marcelo Lucero, 37, killing the Ecuadorian-American citizen, according to the Suffolk County Long Island District Attorney's Office. Five of the other six jackals are also 17 and one is 16. They all attend Patchogue High School, like many other nice middle class white kids. You have to wonder where the seeds of racism were sown. The assistant DA in the case said the seven charged in the attack admitted they regularly beat Hispanics for fun. He said one of the accused attackers told police "I don't go out doing this very often, maybe once a week."

How does a 17 year-old become a hate-filled murderer, willing to plunge a knife into another human being's chest? What did his twisted brain see in the Hispanic man that made him resort to butchery? Long Island, like cities across the country, has had its share of problems with illegal immigration, but it has generally been limited to criticism of the agencies responsible for its enforcement. In preparing for the defense, Conroy's attorney has already taken a step toward pointing the finger of racism back at the county. He said his client is innocent (there's a shock for you) and that the real racist is County Executive Steve Levy, known for his tough stand against illegal immigration. The attorney said Levy had no basis for saying that the slaying was race-related. Levy shot back: "I think it is fair to say that an individual who tattoos a swastika on his body can be classified as a white supremacist," referring to police reports of a tattoo on Conroy's leg.

Keep in mind that these kids were living at home with families who provided food, clothing and shelter in a suburban community that ranks with some of the better middle-class areas of the country. For many years, I lived on Long Island, only about a 15 minute drive from the scene of the homicide. We often think of these areas as far removed from the crime that is so prevalent in the inner cities, the ghettoes. Yet, for some, it has become a place to take a stand; a place to defend against what they see as an encroaching enemy, advancing toward their pristine world. Ordinarily, at the tender age of 16 or 17 you haven't had the time or the inclination to learn how to hate the darker inhabitants of your orbit. Certainly, you haven't developed the propensity to hurt people simply because they look different from you. No, that profound sense of enmity is a behavior that can only be learned from others.

It reminds me of my initiation onto the New York City Police Department. Having been raised in a tenement on the lower East Side of Manhattan, I grew up with kids of all colors, religions and intimate inclinations. Growing up in the melting pot of the nation, we were taught that all people are the same, their differences notwithstanding. When I became a cop and began working with guys from middle-class families, I quickly saw the incompatibility in our views of people. They hadn't lived in neighborhoods with, or gone to school with, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, etc. Hence, they didn't know how to interact with them. Such lack of experience often leads to fear of things they don't understand and antipathy toward anyone who represents that fear.

As a rookie cop in the late sixties, I was introduced to racist terms on a daily basis that I had never heard at home and seldom heard at school, or in the street. What made it so bizarre was that I was from the same type of neighborhood as those being bitterly condemned, yet, I was eagerly accepted. The only variable in the equation was my skin color, which apparently was my rite of passage in that presumed agreement among the members of organized society, defining the benefits of the social contract. If I had the same tint of skin as Mr. Lucero, some of my "brother" officers might have referred to me as a "spick," behind my back. Moreover, when I lived on Long Island, there might have been 7 thugs stalking me with murder on their minds. We may never fully understand the complexity of the human mind and the irrational fears that impel some to murder. Therefore, while we're trying to unravel the mystery, the best we can do is keep the savages in cages.
Every time I read another tragic story about race-related murder I wonder if we've really come very far in our social evolution. It's even sadder and more shocking when the homicide is committed by the very young.

Last month, 7 teenage savages in Patchogue, Long Island, singled out a Hispanic man for a beating that ended up taking his life. Jeffrey Conroy, 17 years old, stuck a knife into the chest of Marcelo Lucero, 37, killing the Ecuadorian-American citizen, according to the Suffolk County Long Island District Attorney's Office. Five of the other six jackals are also 17 and one is 16. They all attend Patchogue High School, like many other nice middle class white kids. You have to wonder where the seeds of racism were sown. The assistant DA in the case said the seven charged in the attack admitted they regularly beat Hispanics for fun. He said one of the accused attackers told police "I don't go out doing this very often, maybe once a week."

How does a 17 year-old become a hate-filled murderer, willing to plunge a knife into another human being's chest? What did his twisted brain see in the Hispanic man that made him resort to butchery? Long Island, like cities across the country, has had its share of problems with illegal immigration, but it has generally been limited to criticism of the agencies responsible for its enforcement. In preparing for the defense, Conroy's attorney has already taken a step toward pointing the finger of racism back at the county. He said his client is innocent (there's a shock for you) and that the real racist is County Executive Steve Levy, known for his tough stand against illegal immigration. The attorney said Levy had no basis for saying that the slaying was race-related. Levy shot back: "I think it is fair to say that an individual who tattoos a swastika on his body can be classified as a white supremacist," referring to police reports of a tattoo on Conroy's leg.

Keep in mind that these kids were living at home with families who provided food, clothing and shelter in a suburban community that ranks with some of the better middle-class areas of the country. For many years, I lived on Long Island, only about a 15 minute drive from the scene of the homicide. We often think of these areas as far removed from the crime that is so prevalent in the inner cities, the ghettoes. Yet, for some, it has become a place to take a stand; a place to defend against what they see as an encroaching enemy, advancing toward their pristine world. Ordinarily, at the tender age of 16 or 17 you haven't had the time or the inclination to learn how to hate the darker inhabitants of your orbit. Certainly, you haven't developed the propensity to hurt people simply because they look different from you. No, that profound sense of enmity is a behavior that can only be learned from others.

It reminds me of my initiation onto the New York City Police Department. Having been raised in a tenement on the lower East Side of Manhattan, I grew up with kids of all colors, religions and intimate inclinations. Growing up in the melting pot of the nation, we were taught that all people are the same, their differences notwithstanding. When I became a cop and began working with guys from middle-class families, I quickly saw the incompatibility in our views of people. They hadn't lived in neighborhoods with, or gone to school with, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, etc. Hence, they didn't know how to interact with them. Such lack of experience often leads to fear of things they don't understand and antipathy toward anyone who represents that fear.

As a rookie cop in the late sixties, I was introduced to racist terms on a daily basis that I had never heard at home and seldom heard at school, or in the street. What made it so bizarre was that I was from the same type of neighborhood as those being bitterly condemned, yet, I was eagerly accepted. The only variable in the equation was my skin color, which apparently was my rite of passage in that presumed agreement among the members of organized society, defining the benefits of the social contract. If I had the same tint of skin as Mr. Lucero, some of my "brother" officers might have referred to me as a "spick," behind my back. Moreover, when I lived on Long Island, there might have been 7 thugs stalking me with murder on their minds. We may never fully understand the complexity of the human mind and the irrational fears that impel some to murder. Therefore, while we're trying to unravel the mystery, the best we can do is keep the savages in cages.