As Harry Seigal says, it’s the worst fear of every parent who sends their child off to college. Especially when that college is in the Big City.
There are more college students in New York than there are people in Baltimore. A newly arrived college student murdered by a stranger in a street crime is the worst fear of a million mothers and fathers across the country.
It’s not that New York isn’t a safe city, even though murders have climbed somewhat this year.
We were down to 1,561 murders in Rudy Giuliani’s first year in office in 1994 and to 649 murders (not counting the 9/11 attacks) by his final year in 2001. To 335 murders after 12 years of Mike Bloomberg. And to 295 in 2018 under de Blasio, on track to rise about 9% this year.
But to Tessa Majors’ family, none of this matters. She was murdered, and statistics don’t make her death any less tragic. Maybe she was in Morningside Park to jog. Maybe to buy weed. Who cares? Neither should carry a death sentence. Yet it did.
Majors was accosted and killed by the steps in Morningside Park that ascend the natural cliff that separates Barnard and the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights from West Harlem. Going back to my teenage years in the early 1990s, the park had a reputation as a dangerous place after dark and even during the day for college students and families alike. This year, the park, just 30 acres, lived up to its old reputation with a series of violent assaults committed by young teenagers and the most robberies of any city park, including at least five by or on the staircase.
Back in the 1990s, when Harry was a teenager, we were still allowed to warn people not to do risky things, like go into a park at night. Are we still allowed to do so? Is it not victim-blaming, since women have a right to go anywhere they want to go whenever they want to go there?
Is it not racist, since the only reason to fear Morningside Park at night is because bad dudes of color have their run of the place, and there can be no such thing as a bad dude of color, except when they murder a pretty 18-year-old white Barnard freshman?
Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk, the Sunday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops — given them up as hostages ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter… How can our society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!
That was then. We now have Netflix fantasy dramas to teach us how the handling of the Central Park Five makes us forget that Trisha Meili was still raped and left for dead.
Referring to the arrest this week of Majors’ alleged killers, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer Friday said that “There are just more questions than answers. Who was with a 13-year-old, and how would he confess so fast? We need a lot more information before we believe anything.”
The police gave answers, but either Brewer wasn’t paying attention or refuses to believe.
The police — again under tremendous pressure in a front-page case — have offered a credible account of how they found the first teen, who reportedly had a knife on him when he was stopped because he was wearing an outfit matching that worn by one of the attackers, and was accompanied by his uncle and guardian when he was questioned and confessed. (One of his two friends, a 14-year-old, was released Saturday evening.)
And the 13-year-old confessed to killing Tessa Majors. It could be false. It could be true. The questions are no longer answered by trust in the cops because they’ve squandered their credibility too many times. If we’re skeptical of the cops, it’s only because they’re earned it.
But for all the concerns and skepticism, Tessa Majors is still dead. She shouldn’t be. She should be going to her classes at Barnard, complaining about all the important, and all the trivial, issues that life has to offer. And she should be coming home to her parents for the holidays, secure in her college-aged belief that she’s invulnerable to the forces of the universe that might do her harm. She should not have died in Morningside Park.
Bad things happen. Terrible, terrible things that never should happen, happen. And these terrible things are done by people who shouldn’t do terrible things. Yet they do. Some Ph.D. student might write a dissertation on why society is to blame for Majors’ death, both because her killers wouldn’t have killed her if they were happily ensconced at Choate or she could roam Morningside Park at will in the middle of the night because it’s her right to do so. Someone will free-ride her Ph.D. on Tessa Major’s death.
Can we thread the needle between fear and loathing? Are we perpetually doomed to over-react one way or the other, to deny the reality that there are people out there who do bad things to other people, and that there are things out there that are needlessly risky to do? Must we indulge constant fantasy interpretations of the world around us?
There are two hard, very cold facts here. A young woman who came to New York to go to college won’t be going home for Christmas, and a young man who is alleged to have killed her may spend a substantial portion of his future in prison.
I’m betting that some of the mostly overdue new justice reforms will need correction over time. We’ll find out one unspeakable tragedy at a time.
This isn’t an academic exercise, playing the Trolley Problem with myriad scenarios, but real life, with real life consequences for real people. We need to get real. Maybe if we did, both Tessa Majors and the 13-year-old boy would be able to spend Christmas with their families this year.