- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Carjacking, robbery and pistol-whipping are scary scenes right out of “Grand Theft Auto” and other violent video games. So was art imitating life or life imitating art when a team of thugs went on a crime spree in the District and Maryland this week?

In the virtual world of the criminal obstacle course, don’t you get premium points for carjacking a cop? Or committing a crime in broad daylight without getting caught?

Watch any boy — or young man — suspend all sense of reason and respect as they become mesmerized while racking up high scores playing some of these expensive, explosive X-Box games. Then, you just might begin to understand why criminals are getting bolder — and younger.

It brings back memories of the D.C.-area snipers, a man and a boy who played violent videos for hours as practice rounds for their real “RoadKill.”

For a few tense hours Monday afternoon, when news was breaking about the random crime wave in Northeast and Prince George’s County, my heart skipped a few beats. I’m sure I was not alone wondering if we were in for a scary spring feeling like sitting ducks in a carnival shooting gallery.

One of Monday’s victims was a student at Catholic University, where I teach journalism. The biggest surprise to me, based on my students’ reporting, is that the students are as numb to violence as many others in this generation growing up desensitized to death and destruction. They were shocked only because one of the incidents occurred in the middle of the afternoon in front of a dorm.

“This issue of youth violence, and particularly young black males involved in criminal activity, is the most complex social anomaly that our nation has ever dealt with,” said Tom Blagburn, head of security at the New School for Enterprise and Development and the retired community policing director of the Metropolitan Police Department.

“There are people in this city, many of them ex-offenders, who understand these complex dynamics and can intervene in the lives of youth and young adults effectively,” he said, “but many times they are ignored and not given an opportunity to contribute.”

One such ex-offender is Earl Robinson-El, executive director of Youth Inc., who also volunteers with Parent Watch and Miracle Hands.

“Look at our kids, there is no discipline and no respect,” Mr. Robinson-El said. However, “the problem is not with the schools; [the students] bring the problems to the schools.”

Alluding to child-abuse laws, he lays some blame on “the government [which] will let you do everything for your kids but discipline them.” Nor does the pattern of “babies having babies” escape his wrath.

Though he spent many years incarcerated, Mr. Robinson-El eventually earned a degree from Morgan State University and started the nonprofit mentoring organization.

Youth Inc. receives little public notice, Mr. Robinson-El said, though it has helped dozens of young men, some from Oak Hill youth detention center, get degrees and get jobs.

“First we have to have resources so we can try to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” he said.

“Police can’t do it all; the city is too big, and they are spread too thin. We need to find out why our kids are doing what they do.”

As temperatures rise, so does crime, Mr. Blagburn noted.

“We have had these spikes in crime in the city and across this region for decades,” he said, adding that the community needs “to focus on a comprehensive, balanced approach of intervention, prevention and arrest and incarceration.

“We’ve had aggressive enforcement and aggressive prevention. Now it’s fragmented and disconnected,” he said, making a plea that the issue of juvenile recidivism rates must be pushed to the forefront of the region’s policy agenda.

“And, let’s face it, there’s the exhilaration and the excitement and the psychology of taking something from someone because you don’t have anything, especially when you are bombarded every day of your life with people who do,” the former cop said. “To top it off, you have nobody to bridle your behavior.”

Nor can we forget that “we have a culture of interpersonal violence fueled by images, lyrics and the sense of hopelessness,” Mr. Blagburn said.

It would be easy if we could simply blame bolder crimes on videos or lyrics or celebrity images that glorify violence, sex and selfish materialism.

The easy availability of high-powered weapons and drugs are huge challenges that law-enforcement officials appear hard-pressed to rein in, and only when the political stakes are high.

No jobs, no skills, no moral compass and the lack of political will is an unsavory recipe for real and random acts of “Grand Theft Auto.”

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