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The Fear Factor

I don't know all of the details behind the dispute that led to the murder of 16-year-old Detroit high school student Chris Walker and, consequently, to the conviction of two of the three young men accused of killing him. And I certainly don't claim to know everything about what drives some young people to take others' lives.

But I think I have some idea about at least one reason why boys like those who killed Walker, boys in so many American cities like Detroit, turn to blue steel and chrome to deal with their problems. And no, it's not simply because they're gang-banging bad asses.

I mean, they grab these guns to scare and hurt one another, sure. But they're also grabbing these guns because they are scared and hurt themselves. And I don't mean a little concerned or a bit anxious. In certain quarters of Detroit, our children are living in terror.

Yes, I know most of them won't admit it. I see the young boys with their droopy white tees and thousand-yard glares and tough-guy postures, elbowing past you in line at the corner store and scowling at me from the passenger seat of a passing car. I see the gangsta grimaces and the swagger barely held in check by the sagging jeans. I hear the curses shouted in basso profundo from street corners and in school classrooms. And I know some of you wonder how the hell anyone could suggest that these kids are more frightened than they are frightening.

But that's precisely what they are: Scared kids coming up in a town where even an insignificant slight can leave you on your back with a sucking chest wound. Scared kids being reared by equally terrified parents whose only solution to the bloodshed outside their doors is more window bars, more door locks and less trust for the other teenagers up the block. Scared kids who've come to believe that nobody will -- or can -- protect them from the monsters the shadows.

As a result, too many of them give themselves over to the monsters we all harbor within. They decide that survival means scaring you before you can scare them, proving to anyone within eyesight or earshot that they'll do anything to anyone perceived as a threat -- or as a foil to better burnish their knucklehead image. Even the ones from "good" homes feel the fear and embrace the foolishness. (One of the young men convicted of killing Walker is the son of a Wayne County court clerk, the acquitted teen the son of a Detroit homicide detective.) They are too-scared children with too-easy access to the power over life and death. And we are losing them to crime and punishment alike.

I've heard it before, the sound of the sort of fear that sends bullets flying in a blink. I hear it in the boasts of rap stars. I hear it in basements and on front porches from young dudes who, apropos of nothing, suddenly decide to start mouthing off about their new pistol or last night's petty-ass confrontation with peers. You haven't asked for the war stories. You don't really care to know. But they've got to make sure you hear, make sure you understand that they are not to be trifled with. Never mind that you mean them no harm. They are children. They are scared. And they don't want to be scared alone.

I know this fear intimately, too. I was 14 years old the first time I watched another kid die from violence, and it would certainly not be the last. I know how hollow adults' words of reassurance can ring when the schoolmate you laughed with on Tuesday afternoon turns up dead on Friday night. And I know how that gnawing sense of vulnerability can harden your resolve to never go out that way, even if it means getting the other motherf***** first.

I also know that some of us try like hell to stem that fear. We tell our boys (and, increasingly, our girls) to put down the guns, to figure out less hazardous ways to work out disagreements. We see our children's potential, know they are our future and urge them to not let often-fleeting disputes lead to such permanent tragedies. We tell them that we'll help, that we'll guide, that we'll protect.

But then we export their parents' jobs, cut school funding, slash social programs, jack up college tuition, underfund and mis-deploy our cops, build more prisons and fight like hell to deny the worst off among us essentials such as affordable health care. We say we will protect the children. But we don't. And deep down, we wonder if we are truly able.

We didn't protect the seven teens, most of them summer school students, shot at a Detroit bus stop in June. We didn't protect the girl shot and wounded at Denby High just 12 days before. We didn't protect young Chris Walker. Truth is, we've been watching teenagers die in droves in metro Detroit since even before I was in high school in the mid-1980s — and with each successive generation, we waste chances to prove there is a better way. We weren't protecting kids very well when I came up. We're not protecting them very well now.

So why should our children believe we ever will?

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