Robert B. Simpson: Somalia redux

November 2, 2013 

Last week two Sonoma County sheriff's deputies in Santa Rosa, California, saw a male teen, armed with what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle, walking down the sidewalk ahead of their cruiser. Pulling up behind him, they called to him to put the weapon down, at which point he reportedly began turning around, with the muzzle of the weapon automatically coming up. One of the deputies instinctively responded by opening fire. Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz fell to the ground, dying of the seven bullet wounds he suffered. His toy replica of an AK-47 fell nearby. A fake pistol was tucked in his waistband.

Discussion has been heated. Some are outraged that the deputies so instantly resorted to gunfire, killing an innocent child. Others point out that, awful as the tragedy is, the officers had no way of knowing that the suspicious armed man they saw turning toward them, ready to fire, was just a child with a toy. Had they paused long enough to make that determination, and had their initial perceptions been correct, the pause might well have been fatal for them.

The world has changed dramatically. The good old days for which we sometimes yearn were certainly not as good as we like to remember, but they were good enough that a child could walk about in public armed with a fake weapon and have little fear of being shot. I know; I was such a child. I lugged to school more than once a wooden replica of an Army rifle, realistic enough to have been used by soldiers for drill in the early days of World War II. I used it at recess for our daily play at attacking the enemy Germans or Japanese hiding at the edge of the playground. My parents were unconcerned that I took it to school, the school bus driver was unconcerned that I had it aboard the bus, and the teacher was unconcerned at the realistic-looking weapon leaning in the corner of her classroom.

The late David Brinkley, in the memoir titled with his name, recalled that during his childhood in Wilmington, N.C., local young men entertained themselves by going down to the docks and shooting wharf rats with caliber .22 rifles. It was not unusual, he said, to see a fellow strolling through town with his weapon, on the way down to the water to shoot rats. Nobody thought anything about it.

A lady who knows me better than does anybody else in the world swears that I hate change more than anyone she's ever known. Probably true. But even I know that the world can't stay the same as it was in David Brinkley's childhood, nor in mine. The population of this country has considerably more than doubled in my lifetime. It will double again. And we can't hold on to all the same relaxed attitudes that were tolerated in earlier times. Stores no longer keep pads of counter checks lying out for customers to fill in the blanks and pay with a "make your own" paper check. It's not that world any more.

You have to wonder what factor or factors has led us to the point where law enforcement officers are so keyed to lethal attacks in schools, in businesses, wherever, that they find themselves killing a 13-year-old boy armed with a toy. Because to hold their fire, in this society, could be suicidal.

You can conclude that one factor is the widespread violence on television and in movies. Or violent lyrics in modern music. Or the relaxing of standards of conduct in schools and on public streets. Or heavy use of drugs, leading to violent crime. Or any number of other factors. And all of them may play a role. But I have to conclude that one major factor is the excessive availability of and apparent obsession with guns. Note that I said "excessive." There needs to be a balance. Because this is no longer Mayberry, and Andy Griffith is no longer sheriff. But instead of balance between no guns and a flood of guns, there is ever increasing excess. And some idiot somewhere is forever calling for still more availability, intent upon turning the country into a massive armed camp.

So the amount of violent crime increases, law enforcement officers become more keyed to instant and violent reaction to a perceived threat, the rest of us live in fear, and those who can afford it retreat to live behind gates. And we slide inevitably not toward the good old days, but toward a sort of combination Colombia and Somalia.

I don't know how we stop the slide. But we must.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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