- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

By now you have heard the horrific news of what happened Easter Monday at the National Zoological Park in Northwest Washington. Mobs of teen-agers fought, bickered and taunted each other before their violence exploded into gunplay.

Six youths, including an 11-year-old struck in the head, were shot as 20,000 visitors, most of them children, scrambled for safety. That more bystanders were not injured in the melee is truly remarkable. That the disturbances, and be sure there was more than one, were allowed to roll throughout the zoo and escalate into such senseless bloodshed is outrageous. Yet that is precisely what appears to have happened.

Local TV and radio reporters, whose stations are only blocks from the main entrance to the zoo, were on the scene immediately, capturing much of the chaos live as medical crews, firefighters and police officers tried to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. Tearful parents stricken with fear were counting children's heads and veteran journalists nervously looked over their shoulders, fully aware of the fact that the whereabouts of the gunmen were unknown to police. Cameras panned teen-agers consoling one another, and rush-hour motorists were warned to steer away from the main entrance to the zoo and off Connecticut Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare that carries commuters into Maryland.

The scene at the hospital was equally busy. Doctors and nurses at Children's Hospital were pressed into action, tending to the young victims and their families and trying to accommodate concerned city officials and demanding media inquiries. Suffice it to say, the roles of police, medics and firefighters were extremely difficult. As usual, public safety authorities rose to the challenge. Local authorities also took an extraordinary step and appeared on national television, assuring Americans and potential visitors from abroad that the National Zoological Park, one of the most popular attractions in all America and part of the Smithsonian Institution, has not and will not become an urban battle ground.

That is particularly reassuring given the interesting irony that most of the visitors and, presumably the young, black gunmen, were at the zoo to celebrate a time-honored tradition that sprung from the ugly days of segregation. Several years back the zoo began formal recognition of the gatherings, organizing such family activities as storytelling and face-painting. Some families now plan their family reunions around the annual event. Never, however, in the century-old history of the celebrations, have those gatherings been struck by bloodshed.

To be sure, the majority of unchaperoned teens were not involved in the initial or ensuing violence. Witnesses said everyone had been skirting two or three groups of arguing teen-agers on and off all day and that, as the day wore on and people moved from one site in the expansive park to another, so did the disruptive teens. At one point, security ejected one or two parties. One mother, with her small children at her side, told reporters she stood between the two gunmen as they argued and just seconds before shots rang out.

The shooting was tragic and shocking for several reasons. The victims are young, the gunmen are young and the location is ordinarily safe and serene. Since it is routinely patrolled by U.S. Park Police, one would think that even a criminal mind would think twice about endangering the lives of so many young people. Indeed, in hindsight, the initial spurts of violence could have been better handled.

If law enforcement authorities have not yet sat down together to tighten security, then now is the time. However, canceling future Easter Monday celebrations, which some folks are already discussing, would send the wrong signal. The zoo is a public facility and is there for all law-abiding folks to behold and enjoy. It's the criminals the cops should keep out, not the rest of us.

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