Out of the West: Violent reality breaks into cosy suburbia

WASHINGTON - We had been home only 10 minutes after a week's holiday on the West Coast before our neighbours were round with the news. There had been a murder in the street. A 15-year-old white kid, shot while weeding his parents' front lawn.

The boy was the son of an official at the World Bank and, by all accounts, a model child. His parents were away in Europe and he was at home because he had sacrificed his holidays to take up a summer fellowship at the Washington Children's Hospital. Hours before being killed he had delivered a speech to fellow students to mark the end of the fellowship programme.

As they related the tragedy, our neighbours showed obvious shock and outrage. Although the black assailant later gave himself up to a local psychiatric hospital and is now in custody, they find themselves facing the same reality that most Americans face all the time: that in this country, saturated by guns and filled with racial hatred, the danger of mortal attack always lurks.

For the residents of Chevy Chase Park, on the far north- west fringe of the capital, murder had for a long time been something that happened elsewhere. This is a neighbourhood of quintessential suburban cosiness and privilege. Brick or clapboard houses line quiet streets which to a British eye could almost as easily be set in a leafy outcrop of London, perhaps Twickenham, as in America. As far as anyone can remember, there has not been a killing in the immediate area for more than 10 years. And in most minds, murders are committed by blacks against blacks - not against teenage whites of well- to-do families.

We too, as recent arrivals in the area - and in the US - had been virtually taken in by this now-broken sense of immunity to the violence of the rest of the city. It seemed possible, for better or worse, to live here and be barely conscious of the strife and misery of people just two, three miles away. At nights, we hear sirens wailing in distant, poorer neighbourhoods, but they rarely pass our way. On fine days, young children play unaccompanied by adults in front gardens and on the pavements. At weekends, some will set up little roadside stalls to sell lemonade or cobs of corn.

And all this in Washington, which has the worst per capita murder rate of all US cities - a fact that seemed particularly to concern friends and family in England at the time of our moving here. Even with its relatively small population, the capital averages more than a murder a day, with a grim total in 1991 of 485. In a normal year, one in every 440 black teenagers in Washington will be slain. The disgraced former mayor, Marion Barry, barely improved the image of the city in 1989 when he commented rather unfortunately: 'Outside of the killings, we have one of the lowest crime rates in the country.'

Since the murder last Friday of young Alain Colaco, the barrier between those statistics and the daily life of the residents of Chevy Chase has been breached. Our neighbours have told their two boys, who are 13 and 10 years old, to stay out of their front garden where most evenings they have played catch, regularly losing balls in our scrawny rhododendron bushes. Now they will have to make do with the much smaller backyard. Even that has a small alley behind it and so can never really be safe.

The residents on our street are barely reassured that the killing appears to have been totally random. The murderer had walked three miles from his home in north-east Washington, largely through uninhabited parkland, with his gun under his shirt. He did not know the victim and, in police interviews, his only explanation for killing him was that 'he had the urge to do it'. Such mindless killing, though, is as much a part of the daily slaughter going on all across America as the more common drugs and gangland slayings.

The sadness of the loss of this one boy was underscored by the apparent brightness of the future that lay before him. He planned to be a scientist and was down to enter trials for the next US Olympics soccer team. In his speech to his student friends, delivered hours before his death, he commented on the value of his experience at the children's hospital. 'It has provided me with opportunities I would not have had otherwise, such as the opportunity to sit and talk to patients,' he said. 'These are things that will help me no matter what I do in life.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Installation Manager

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Tax Investigations Manager/Senior Manager

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Cameron Kennedy Recruitment: This rapidl...

Scrum Master - Southampton, Hampshire - Excellent Package

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited:...

Senior Scrum Master - Hampshire - £47k

£47000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Key skil...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice