CHICAGO — To a lifelong resident of one of America’s most dangerous, corrupt and racially divided cities, the murder of Hadiya Pendleton has brought to light what really drives coverage — and outrage — of unspeakable violence: a virtuous victim.
Did a 15-year-old’s death really strike a chord nationally because she had, a week before, been to our nation’s capital performing at the inauguration festivities? No, that wasn’t it — nor did her story hit a nerve because of where she died.
The typical woe of victims in the rough parts of town is that their stories don’t get reported in as much detail as those who die in a nicer parts — the neighborhoods that, when people are frightened, have the clout to make those in power listen to their demands that something to be done to quell the violence.
But Hadiya was gunned down in a tough neighborhood — one about a mile from the Chicago home of Barack Obama, a president who has yet to acknowledge publicly that his hometown has gotten an international reputation for being a “Murder City.” The city recorded 550 homicides between January 2012 and the end of last month, so many that most of them have just become footnotes to Chicago’s interminable murder spree.
Obama’s South Side neighbors have pleaded with the president to come back and call for national action on inner-city violence. Yet their pleas have been ignored ever since last summer, when the city reached the milestone of having had more homicide victims through the first six months of the year than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in the same time period.
Also notable in the tale of this most recent child tragedy is that the teenager didn’t rocket to post-mortem attention because of the perennial complaint that victims of gun violence are only acknowledged when large numbers of them are killed by a single gunman. Hadiya was the only child to die after a gunman shot into a crowd of 12 students.
Now, you could make the argument that the national heartbreak was due to the same reason that seems to sort some victims of tragedy into the media spotlight, while leaving others in anonymity: beauty. As one Chicago newspaper put it: “City’s ugly violence now has a pretty face.”
But that’s only partially right. The rest of it is that Hadiya was as close to being as innocent as you can get.
Media accounts tell of a girl who had no brushes with the law or gang affiliations and was an honor-roll student attending a selective-enrollment college prep school. She was an athlete and a majorette in the school’s marching band, and a girl with dreams of a profession after getting in and making it through an elite university.
In short, she was the kind of bright child any one of us would be proud to parent or mentor, and it hurts to think of her getting shot in the back and dying in the middle of the street.
These are not bad impulses. They’re quite human and they’re the ones credited with turning the horror of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings into a rallying cry that mustered the political courage to look for measures that would prevent such a horror from ever happening again.
Unfortunately, those instincts won’t get us far enough in stemming the violence that rips struggling communities apart every day.
Until our hearts start aching for every disadvantaged at-risk child who becomes a victim to senseless violence — whether perfectly virtuous or not — our aspirations for safe communities will be sure to fall short.
Far too many of us have become too accepting of the steady stream of gun-related violence that happens in “bad neighborhoods,” “somewhere else” or only to “bad people.” It’s time to start believing that a harm to the least of us is every bit as tragic as a harm to the rest of us.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.