20 years later, memory of a little girl’s shooting still haunts

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Nearly 20 years ago this month, my wife started work as a social worker at Children’s Hospital. On the same day, I joined the Editorial Board of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On Wednesday of that week, Michelle Cutner was killed.

She was 6, walking home from school in South Philadelphia with her mom. A bullet wildly fired by a dumb, reckless 16-year-old neighbor with anger-management problems hit her in the side.

Later that day, it became my wife’s duty to usher Michelle’s mom into the room at CHOP where her baby girl’s lifeless body lay. The next day, I wrote my first editorial for the paper. It said in part:

“Will this girl who died because she stopped with her mom to buy some potato chips and soda be the victim who makes us see, makes us stop, makes us change?

“When the anger is fresh and fierce, when the pain makes our hearts clench like a fist, we always think this is the time we will change.

“And some good people will be moved to work harder to make the violence stop.

“But for most of us, the anger will soon recede. What will remain is the fear.

“Because it is scary, this sight of children killing children with the casualness of a person flicking a fly off a sleeve. Because it is so vast, this iron trap of collapsed jobs, schools, families and hopes. Soon, our sense of futility will numb our anger. We’ll retreat into a frightened resolve merely to protect ourselves and our own.

“We’ll leave it to someone else to do all the hard, confusing things Michelle Cutner’s appalling death demands we do – about guns, drugs, jobs and families.”

Those words were written 20 years ago. But they could have been written yesterday, about some other mother’s child.

Since Michelle died, some things have gotten better. The murder rate in Philly is down, 247 last year compared to 400 the year Michelle was shot. Chester A. Arthur, the school she attended, is now a model for how new and long-time residents of a neighborhood can work together to improve education.

Better, but still not good enough.

When I think back to Michelle, I realize one thing while hoping on another. 

I realize that some day another bullet will kill some other sweet child for no reason on a Philadelphia street. And I hope, just barely but fervently all the same,  that next shooting will prove to be the one that really makes us change.

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