Four years ago, we moved to a small town of 5,000 and rejoiced that we never had to lock our doors. A few weeks ago, we moved back to the city and rejoiced that we were just a short stroll away from several great restaurants.
Then came Monday night. Just two days into rejoicing we were startled back to reality when two men, both federal prosecutors, were shot walking up the same hill from the same restaurant area by the same houses we pass nearly every night. One man died, the other was wounded.
All I can think is: This is not supposed to happen in my neighborhood. This is a "nice" neighborhood, full of students and the sort of people who prefer old houses, big trees and sidewalks. Everyone greets neighbors, knows everyone's dogs' and children's names, gathers for neighborhood meetings.
But it did happen. Which is to say, no one is free anymore from fear and violence and the increasing randomness of crime. The two men who were shot were visitors to our town, both assistant U.S. attorneys from Illinois attending a seminar at the National Advocacy Center, a U.S. Justice Department training facility and a bright new addition to the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia.
The two prosecutors had walked from the center, just a couple of blocks from our house, down the hill to have dinner in a popular bar and restaurant section of town. On their way home shortly before 10 p.m., they suddenly heard footsteps running behind them and voices demanding that they lie face down. Instead, they ran.
Michael C. Messer, a 49-year-old father of three from Morton Grove, Ill., took a bullet in the leg and the back, and died shortly thereafter. Richard Ferguson made it back to the Advocacy Center with a bullet in his arm.
Four teens, ages 16 to 18, have been arrested and charged with the fatal shooting. They didn't stop with the killings that night but continued on a rampage of armed robbery for several more hours. Their capture the next day was bizarrely serendipitous.
The local sheriff was chasing a bank robber when his car accidentally hit a Volvo. Guess whose it was? The car belonged to the mother of one of the shooters. When the mother brought her son to the sheriff's department to file an accident report, deputies recognized the car and the young man's name as having been associated with the crime spree. Talk about luck.
Not so lucky are the rest of us who now must learn to live differently. The odds of another shooting so close to home are probably remote, I tell myself. But are they?
How easily it could have been my family. My husband, who had walked our dogs along that exact path not 15 minutes earlier. Or my son, who frequently meets friends at a nearby coffee bar. Or, yes, even me, as I might have visited the friends in front of whose house Messer collapsed, mortally wounded.
The range of emotions I have felt these past few days has been varied, but one stands above the rest. Anger. I'm angry that I have to be afraid, that we now must drive the three blocks to our favorite restaurant, that we must walk our dogs before dark. I'm furious that I have to remind my son to check the shadows before he gets out of his car. And remember to do the same myself.
All because four teen-age thugs valued the prospect of a few bucks over the life of another. I feel like Howard Beale in the movie "Network." I want to stick my head out the window and shout: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But what's the use? No one would hear me. Everybody's locked inside, trying to figure out what's gone wrong. And we have to take it, because that's the way it is.