The reaction to the shooting of innocent 8-year-old Donnell Bibbes, hit in the head by a bullet intended for his older brother, was no doubt universal among non-gang members: How do you live with yourself after doing something like that?
Apparently, easily enough.
As the child remained in critical condition, the gunman has yet to rush down to the police station to relieve himself of the guilt that would rack the rest of us. Similarly, the shooter who left 11-year-old Juan Rodriguez partly paralyzed from a stray bullet at the beginning of the summer has not succumbed to conscience.
That doesn’t surprise forensic psychologist Charles P. Ewing. But it does raise a question; What happens to conscience between the time an innocent babe takes its first breaths and a young adult picks up a gun?
“Young people who commit these kinds of acts don’t really care that much about themselves,” said Ewing, SUNY distinguished service professor at the University at Buffalo Law School who wrote the book “Kids Who Kill.”
“They find themselves in a situation where they don’t have any hope.”
Without that hope – for their careers, their family, their future; the hope that fuels the rest of us – the shooter is left “basically willing to give up his own life, or any meaningful life, on a whim,” Ewing said.
While our mores are reinforced by family, friends and co-workers, they learn a different set of values from a street family whose members grew up amid the joblessness, crime and blight that – like any virus – claim the vulnerable even while sparing most of the population.
Ewing said that street family supplies its own value system: “We’re selling self-esteem. Be with us. … At least be respected by somebody.”
In reality, it’s an illusion that leads to a dead end. But that’s what the larger society is competing against when trying to steer these potential murderers in another direction.
Of course, alienated street thugs aren’t the only ones who find it easy to ignore conscience. Former Angola bar owner Gabriele Ballowe is accused in a hit-and-run that killed Barry Moss while she was driving home drunk just before Christmas in 2013 – and then going to great lengths to cover up the damage to her vehicle. She also has refused to talk to police about what happened that night.
But in the inner city, the acts are deliberate and repeat themselves as vengeance and retaliation become the norm, abetted by violent movies and videos in which, Ewing noted, remorse is never part of the script.
But he also raises another issue:
“What is there in Buffalo that is so awful that you would resort to this type of violence on a regular basis? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves,” he said, noting that the problem is not so much one of race or ethnicity as it is socioeconomic status: These are young people who feel they have no stake in society. That’s what he found when he wrote the book in 1990; it is still true today.
So how do we give them a stake?
How do we create an environment in which innocent kids don’t become collateral damage while no one – not the shooter, witnesses or intended targets – feels anything that compels them to come forward?
If the rest of us truly have a conscience, the 8-year-old shouldn’t have to be from our own neighborhood before we are moved to answer that question.