CRIME : The Moral Dilemmas of a Tagger's Slaying

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam)

The decision, last week, by the Los Angeles city attorney to file, at least, misdemeanor gun charges against midnight-stroller-turned-folk-hero William A. Masters II in the shooting death of a tagger was an appropriate and important step toward healing a community that has misbehaved since the incident. Whether you consider Masters a saint or a sinner, there have been disgraceful displays on both sides of the controversy, all deserving of a moral indictment.

Some vocal elements of the Latino community all-too predictably saw a racial motive in the slaying of Cesar Rene Arce. True, when Masters was asked to describe his attackers, he replied they were "Mexican skinheads." That characterization prompted a group of Latino attorneys to ask for a Justice Department investigation into whether Masters violated the civil rights of Arce and his friend, David Hillo.

The questions, raised by the attorneys' request, are fair enough: Does Masters value Mexican lives less than Irish or Italian or German lives? Had he stumbled upon two taggers who were blond, blue-eyed kids from Pasadena and who had allegedly threatened him, would he have reached for his gun? There are recent examples of other individuals--among them Gov. Pete Wilson while stumping against crime in Fresno--who reflexively associate graffiti with Latino youths.

Still, what leaders of the Latino community have to come to grips with is that such an association may be more fact than slur. In Fresno or Los Angeles or Sacramento, those of us who are Latino know full well who are vandalizing our neighborhoods. Graffiti on an urban billboard are not meant to be secrets. They do not whisper, they shout. And they do so in their own distinct language. Often, their own distinct ethnic language. As criminologists will tell you, the tags themselves are as identifying as DNA. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that El Flaco is really our cousin, Ricardo, or El Loco is our neighbor's kid, Pablo.

But the Masters' case is less about race than about another four-letter word that is, in today's society, much more paralyzing-- fear . And it is fear that is at the root of something else that is troubling: the public reaction of some of Masters' fellow citizens to the tragedy. A flood of calls reportedly poured into the police station where Masters was being held, offering everything from money and legal assistance to words of encouragement. One Good Samaritan even brought Masters dinner.

It should not be too difficult to figure out why a city of frightened and frustrated souls, so deeply scared by crime and violence, would, when confronted with the shooting death of someone allegedly committing a criminal act, be so eager to canonize a figure like Masters.

Graffiti are more than eyesores. They visually remind us of how much control we have lost over vandalism and crime, of our helplessness in doing anything about it. Graffiti scar the soul of a city, and our own along the way. The tags frighten and depress. Longtime Angelenos say it all the time: They don't recognize their city anymore. And when they cheer someone like Masters, they don't recognize themselves, either.

Imagine Masters at a cocktail party. Between sips of wine, we ask him to tell us what it was like to shoot a person. We pretend to be sympathetic to the stress of his ordeal. How terrible! But, secretly, we soak up a vicarious thrill and wonder if we could do the same thing. As we take another sip, we imagine our own scenario, in slow motion, as if through a morbid game of virtual reality. Could we do it? Could we take a human life to protect ourselves, to protect our family, to protect the surface of a freeway column? For now, we don't have to resolve that moral dilemma, because Masters--our hero--has done it for us.

After the incident, talk-radio airwaves throughout California were saturated with a perverse satisfaction and disregard for life. I am reminded of an especially cold night last year, when a drive-by shooting left a teen-ager dead in front of a supermarket in my hometown. As the crowd of looky-loos gathered and quickly determined that the victim was not an "innocent bystander" but a gang-affiliated Mexican youth, the mood grew shamefully lighter. At one point, an onlooker said something to his companion, and they chuckled. The chuckling was noticed by another onlooker, one who was crying near the corpse of his friend. He approached the chucklers and asked, in an angry voice choked with sorrow, what was so funny. Apparently embarrassed, they walked away.

All I can remember thinking, as I watched this episode unfold, was that the grieving young man had learned that the rest of us simply did not value his loss, because we assigned little value to his friend's life. We should not be completely surprised, then, if we someday find ourselves on the wrong end of a gun he is holding, that he reciprocates by not valuing ours.

The reality of citizens taking the law into their own hands is that it rarely makes the rest of us safer. Quite the contrary. We may expect that the Masters' shooting will have the unintended consequence of persuading taggers to put down their screwdrivers and pick up, for their own protection, something more lethal. After all, as any tagger will now tell you, with society the way it is, you can't be too careful.

In Fresno, in response to the Masters shooting, a conservative radio talk show host recently announced the addition of a new carnival game to his station's annual spring festival--the "Ditto-head Barbeque and Politically Incorrect Picnic." It involves toy guns and paint pellets and cardboard silhouettes. And, with genuine tastelessness, they are calling it: "Tag the Tagger." Criminal, isn't it?*

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