Pay now or pray later
By James Alan Fox
Friday, December 16, 2005

Mass murder - an act of horrific, unspeakable proportions. Apparently, the notion of mass murder in our midst is so unspeakable that no one seems to want to characterize the fatal shooting of four young men in Dorchester on Tuesday night in such bold terms.

"Dorchester massacre," reads this paper's banner on its coverage of the "bloodbath." The Morrissey Boulevard daily describes the crime in copspeak-type language as a "quadruple homicide."

Sure, for most people the term "mass murder" conjures up images of a crazed gunman perched on top of a bell tower shooting indiscriminately at innocent victims below. However, most mass murders, locally and nationally, involve deliberate executions of particular and planned targets for rather pedestrian reasons - typically money or payback in a non-monetary sense.

All six episodes of mass killing occurring in Boston over the past three decades had these familiar markings, especially the Charlestown 99 Restaurant massacre in 1995, the 1991 Chinatown slaughter in an after-hours club, the 1980 robbery-murder at a Brighton bowladrome, and the 1978 robbery-murder at the Blackfriars Restaurant downtown. And thinking about the latest victims' ties to Wakefield recalls the methodical mass murder at Edgewater Technology in 2000 motivated by financial grievances.

Nationally, there have been some 650 mass murders since 1980, three-quarters of which involved firearms. The majority of these mass shootings entailed victims targeted purposely, not random acts of violence against strangers who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there are other distinguishing features of the mass murder phenomenon that should provide the community some small degree of comfort in the painful aftermath of Tuesday's tragedy. Mass murders typically happen in nice, safe neighborhoods.

The bloodshed in gentrified Melville Park should not send neighbors packing in search of safer environs in the suburbs, for these rare events happen in upscale neighborhoods as well.

In fact, a majority of mass murders occurs in small towns or suburbs across America, not big "crime infested" cities.

It has not gone unnoticed in the flood of news coverage about the Dorchester massacre that the body count pushed the year-to-date murder toll in Boston over the 70 mark, a deadly milestone not seen since 1995. This has been a trying year for the political and civic leadership of Boston, and a literal trial by (gun)fire for Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole.

While the murder rate is inching upward, it is hardly out of control. But, of course, inches can become feet, and feet can turn into yards. Rather than abandon the city for safer havens elsewhere, it is time for all of us to return to the hard work of crime prevention and crime control, which we seemed to have ignored somewhat in complacency over the so-called "Boston Miracle" drop in violence.

We must not only fully fund the staffing levels of the Boston police and re-energize its youth crime initiatives, but also restore all forms of community programming, from after-school activities to athletic leagues. In an era of tax cutting, we have been penny-wise and pound-foolish. A few hundred dollars more in the pocket is of little consolation if you're staring down the wrong end of a gun.

By all accounts, the four Dorchester victims were good kids who were trying to make something of their lives through music. Their legacy should be one of community pride and empowerment, not fear and abandonment.

It remains within our reach to make 2006 better than 2005. But it will take collective effort and financial resources to become more than just a wishful New Year's resolution. The choice is ours: Pay now or pray later.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at