I grew up on the edge of Washington's Rock Creek Park. The National Zoo was part of my stamping ground. I used to slip for miles through the forest, playing war, keeping to the creek, making myself invisible, until I crossed the water at the ford and headed up toward the elephants and the snake house. My older brother and I were feral, free-range children, independent at ages eight and ten in a way that seems strange or impossible now. We engaged from time to time in juvenile gang warfare. We had vicious rock fights with boys from another side of the park, over by Mount Pleasant Street. We combatants were all white boys, scruffy little Dead End kids. One day I outflanked a boy in the woods and sidearmed a perfect strike at his head with a rock the size of a plum. It struck him on the temple. He clutched his head and I saw blood seep between his fingers. I ran home in horror, and hid. I was sure I had killed him. I had not. I had fractured his skull.
Thank God I didn't have a gun. I was dangerous enough with rocks.
But maybe boys are naturally violent anyway ceremonially aggressive. Maybe they just need rites of passage. Once in the '80s, when I spent time in Kenya, I was traveling with a great naturalist/conservationist named David Western. We came upon a Masai orpul that is, a gathering of six young warriors in the forest, a ritual feast in which they slaughtered one of their precious cows (a rare occasion) and settled down to eating the entire beast, right down to horns and hooves. They had been at it a day or two, and were disgustingly surrounded by gnawed ribs and a boiling jerrycan of guts and organs. Their adolescent systems were so jazzed by the unaccustomed protein that they fairly vibrated. They were fiercely alive, and would be ready presently to do what a warrior must do to prove himself a man: hunt the lion.
Now, just after Easter, some Washington kid who was either a young warrior out to prove himself, or else merely an angry boy like me or both, perhaps has let fly, not with rocks but with 9 mm bullets, at the edge of the National Zoo, and wounded seven children at the end of a traditional African-American family day at the zoo.
Screams. Mayhem. Horror. Sirens. And after that an even more horrible noise: politicians. The sadness and stupidity of the shooting must be compounded by the pietistic jabber the noise of pols who flap up from their roosts to wheel in the air like vultures above every such mess, especially if it is children who are, as we say, "at risk." There's mileage in the poignancy. The vice president (a candidate now running a curious race against himself: Al Gore the Plausible November Winner in a fight to the death against his evil twin, Al Gore the Truly Unbearable) scored one for Unbearable Al by turning the zoo shooting into a demagogue moment. (Considering the permissive Texas gun atmosphere, George W. Bush practically pulled the trigger on those kids himself! So Gore suggested.)
A long barren waste of months stretches before us between now and November. I am not sure the American people can endure it. We are saturated. The partisan noise over Elian Gonzalez and the Reno raid has driven us almost to the edge of mental illness (and maybe bankruptcy who is paying for all of this opulent security, by the way, and the plantation hideaway, and the little playmates being shipped up from Cuba, and the endless pizza eaten by the highest officials of the land?) That is enough. Let not the politicians (to use Dylan Thomas' words) "blaspheme down the stations of the breath/with any further elegy on innocence and youth." Let's keep children out of the shamingly self-serving and stupid libretto that pols perform in order to sell themselves. Let the kids, when they are old enough, go out into the forest to chase lions.