THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

We’ve hit a new low in depravity

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / September 29, 2010

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When it seems that it can’t get any worse in this season of senseless death, it somehow does, and the soul and psyche of an entire city are tainted by these unthinkable crimes.

In May, it was Jaewon Martin, a 14-year-old honor student killed for no reason by gang members who have no shame. In early September, it was Richel Nova, the hard-working Domino’s pizza deliveryman slashed to death over small change at the end of his shift.

And now this, a scene so primitive it has no precedent, not here: a woman and toddler sprawled on the pavement of a Mattapan side street, shot to death in what detectives believe was a drug encounter gone terribly awry.

Near them, three naked men, all of them shot, two of them dead, the third barely alive.

Witnesses heard a burst of gunfire shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday and then nothing at all.

By the light of day, local residents were craning their necks to look beyond the blue police barriers and yellow crime tape for answers that weren’t really there.

A few miles away, at police headquarters, the visibly shaken mayor railed against the “cowards’’ who committed the killings. His police commissioner vowed justice. The grim-faced district attorney seethed about shared outrage.

The truth is, none of them, nor anyone else, understands how a city so civilized can suddenly feel so unhinged, at least in certain neighborhoods. And none of them is quite sure what to do to stop it.

Residents across huge swaths of Boston haven’t felt this kind of fear and uncertainty since the crack-induced violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the combination of drugs, huge profits from dealing them, and guns fueled a surge in the homicide rate that seems unimaginable today.

But then, unlike now, the killings made perverted sense: dealer versus dealer in the constant battle for territory to peddle their wares.

But a 14-year-old kid in a good family trying to do the right thing? A hard-working immigrant trying to get his daughters through college? A little boy who has yet to live any semblance of a meaningful life? Now it’s just depraved.

“It’s shocking the sensibilities of even people like myself who have been in this business a long time,’’ Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said after yesterday’s news conference.

Edward F. Davis, the police commissioner, said on the phone a short time later: “This is way off the charts.’’

Criminologists and other experts are already explaining how Boston is safer now than it’s historically been, that even while the homicide rate is spiking this year, it’s vastly lower than 20 years ago. They point out that Boston is less violent than most other major cities across the country.

True enough, but experts know that the perception of crime is nearly as important as crime itself, and at the moment, in 2010, Boston is a city that is decidedly on edge.

Which leads to a larger point. There have been more than 50 killings this year, men and women who have lost their lives. But there are tens of thousands of residents, even hundreds of thousands, who have been victimized by fear.

They are the hard-working residents of Woolson Street, where yesterday’s shootings occurred, and all the areas around it.

They are the elderly who won’t go out after dark, the mothers who won’t allow their children to play outside, the homeowners who have seen their values plunge because nobody wants to buy on streets that seem so unsafe.

They are people who barely flinch at the sound of gunshots because it’s become a way of life.

They are a lot like Aneita Gayle, who paused briefly yesterday on her way to the evening shift at a downtown hospital to gaze down Woolson toward the scene of the crime.

Gayle said she goes to work, goes to church, and goes home, and that’s about it. Anything else, she wouldn’t feel safe.

“I’m not on the street,’’ she said. “It’s confining. You don’t have any freedom. But I watch the news and see what happens.’’

Her story was echoed all across the neighborhood.

A health worker with a Barbadian accent stood on her porch and said that when she’s not at work, she’s in her apartment.

“You don’t know who is who,’’ she said on Verrill Street. “You don’t want to be on the streets.’’

“I don’t come out,’’ said Shirelle Irwin, a 63-year-old who lives and works in the neighborhood. “There’s just too much killing for me.’’

Some city councilors are calling for more street workers, though it’s questionable at best whether that would have or could have prevented the massacre. Others are calling for more police patrols, though cops can’t be everywhere at once.

Tom Menino, the mayor who’s never seen anything quite like this in his 17 years in the office, was on the phone late yesterday saying that the neighborhood, the city, is strong enough to get beyond this.

He may be right, but it’s what’s next that has so many innocent people living amid so much fear.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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