- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

At 13, my older sister was pregnant and unmarried. I followed in her footsteps, becoming pregnant at 17, continuing a series of bad choices. My older brother had already begun his walk down his own crooked road, getting arrested by the time he was 16 on a half-dozen occasions for petty crimes. We were linked by fatherlessness. None of us knew it then, but the loss of our father through divorce ravaged our lives. It took two decades to discover fatherlessness was at the core of my vandalized childhood and resulting adult dysfunction.

As I discovered the reasons for my actions and the anguish that took up residence in my life, I also explored the fissures in my brother's world. He was a walking contradiction: precocious and naive, enterprising and lazy, a leader and a loser. He was a boy forever caught in the cross of the crossroad. Frequently, I urged my mother to let him stay in jail, believing a night or two might correct his ways.

In recent years, I have come to understand that even if she had heeded my urgings, my brother's problems wouldn't have been resolved. Like mine, they were far more complex than simple crime and punishment. Dr. Carl Bell, head of the Community Mental Health Council, Inc. in Chicago, has said the violence in many black communities and urban centers is not a public safety issue. It is a mental health issue.

I think of this now as I listen to the responses of District officials to the depressing spate of youth violence. Since January, 18 school-age youths have been murdered in the nation's capital more than those killed in the Columbine massacre. While many of the cases remain unsolved, it appears the perpetrators are principally young black males. No one who has been paying attention should be surprised by this. It is the anticipated outcome.

I was not shocked to learn that my brother shot a man with a sawed-off shotgun, and when his victim didn't die fast enough, my brother, aided by a cousin, stomped him to death this on a public street in Dallas. Nor was I shocked to learn that my brother, at 27 years old, caught a bullet in his back. For years he seemed to have been committing his own public suicide. Too timid to effect his own death, he sought the aid of surrogate Dr. Kevorkians.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher in 1999 sounded the alarm on the increasing number of "traditional or typical" suicides among youth, especially young black males. But because suicide is still seen as an "unmasculine" act, there are thousands using other methods to achieve the same purpose whose numbers are not recorded by national experts. Edwin Shneidman, author of "Suicidal Mind," calls these "subintentioned deaths."

"Many accidents are not entirely accidental in the sense of being fortuitous or related entirely to blind chance visited on the victim from without. It is also clear that some homicides are unconsciously invited. The decedent plays a covert, partial, latent, unconscious role in hastening his own death," says Mr. Shneidman, who calls suicide a "psychache." The pain is intrinsically psychological, born of excessively felt guilt, fear, anxiety, loneliness, angst, dread of growing old and dying badly.

Other experts have made the link between homicides and suicides, although no empirical data exist. David Lester, author of "Making Sense of Suicide" has suggested that the decision to commit suicide or homicide is made based on a person's "subgroup." If the person lives in a community where he is more often exposed to homicides, then he will choose that vehicle. "[An African-American male] may decide that the best way to solve his conflicting needs is to provoke violence that will not only harm others but will also cause his own death," or severe punishment, says Mr. Lester.

Did my brother effect his own death? Was Antonio Donta Nicholson looking for a Dr. Kevorkian? Was Carlton Blount, who is charged in the shooting of the two Wilson High School students, hoping the response to his actions might be his own death? Possibly. I don't know. But the questions demand probing.

These things I do know: If, as Susan Faludi, author of "Stiffed," has written, white men have been cheated and the whole of their world is disintegrating before them, then the situation is far worse for African-American males. An awful lot of black youths are screaming for help. And, the problem of youth violence can't be addressed with slogans, hand-wringing, stronger criminal justice laws, million dollar public safety campaigns or $10,000 rewards.

Nothing can happen to stop the killings until the core issues are addressed: the rapid disintegration of the two-parent family, the ravaged and warlike state of some communities, the elevation of bad-boy and bad-girl celebrities, the devaluation of decency and traditions. If we want to save our youth, we can't run from the hard questions or the hard work.

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