It began, as it often does, with children and a gun.
Police say it was just before noon on Tuesday that 13-year-old Alfred Anderson, already suspended from school for fighting, slipped the weapon through a gap in the locked chain-link gates of Carter G. Woodson Middle School in New Orleans. Thirteen-year-old Darrell Johnson reportedly used that gun to shoot 15-year-old William Pennington in the chest. Whereupon Pennington somehow wrested the gun away and shot Johnson in the back as the younger boy was attempting to flee. Both were critically injured. Both, miraculously, are expected to recover.
I figure the school district will probably get sued, mainly because that's what we do in America when we can't figure something out. But as best I can tell, the school did everything it could to prevent this.
Metal detectors? It used them. School uniforms? It had them. Security guards? It employed them.
Yet, Woodson Middle was still helpless to stop two of its students from shooting one another. And you wonder what, if anything, could have.
Though police are discounting it as a cause of the violence, residents of the neighborhood say the shooting grew out of a turf war. Apparently, there's an ongoing battle between youthful residents of two low-income housing developments that feed students into the school. No one seems to know how the feud got started and at this point, it's probably academic. The fight has become a perpetual motion machine, a thing that somehow moves of its own volition. It moves because it moves. The boys fight because they fight.
Mayor Marc Morial, whose city was one of the first to sue gun-makers to recoup the costs of firearms violence, blames this latest shooting on the easy accessibility of deadly weapons. "Without a gun," he told a reporter, "this would have been a fight between a 13- and 15-year-old, a little pushing and shoving on the playground."
There are pieces of an answer in all of the above. This certainly wouldn't be the first time somebody was hurt in an internecine conflict whose origins no one could recall. The mayor's observation seems likewise valid: There's something profoundly wrong with a country where children find it so easy to obtain deadly weapons.
And yet, there's a difference between a turf war and an attempted murder, between having a gun around and making the fateful decision to use it. Point being that the people and their mayor have identified symptoms, but not the disease.
We have a tendency to do that when these tragedies rip our collective conscience. We blame Hollywood, the video game industry, the gun makers, the members of the rival gang. Not that they don't deserve the blame. It's just that if you're searching for deeper answers, you can't stop there. You have to understand that American families are fracturing and many of our children are falling through the gap. And you have to listen to the story Rosalyn Dabney, a parent advocate at Woodson, told a local reporter. It seems there was to be a meeting at the school for parents. She advertised it by posting flyers throughout both housing projects.
Not one parent showed up, she said. Not one.
Therein lies a question not just for the parents of a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, but for parents in neighborhoods all over the country:
How can we expect other people to show concern for our children if we do not?
If we haven't gone to the school, shown up for the game, BEEN INVOLVED, how can we blame others for not caring enough? It's convenient and self-exonerating to always point to external forces in the moral maiming of our children. But their guilt doesn't prove our innocence.
Consider that, as her son lay in surgery, Johnson's mother complained that "somebody at school should have known ... what was going on."
But how can somebody at school be expected to know what somebody at home apparently did not?
Meanwhile, Rosalyn Dabney watched hordes of angry, frightened parents descend on the school, demanding answers. It was, she said, the first time many of them had ever been there.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.