Reacting to a senseless crime

Jul. 27, 2014 @ 09:14 PM

A popular and respected professor and researcher takes his lunchtime stroll through a quiet Chapel Hill neighborhood near the University of North Carolina campus.

A day later he is dead, having been viciously beaten with a landscape stone in an apparent robbery attempt.

It is the apparently random crime that can shake a community.  There’s no indication Feng Liu, a research professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, did anything whatsoever to put himself at risk. He just happened to be, by all accounts, at the wrong place at the wrong moment when someone –two young men have been charged – had malice and theft in mind. His wallet and four credit cards were taken in the encounter.

The crime, chilling as it is, suggests several reactions:

-- Violence is senseless, whether the victim is a 59-year-old professor in our quintessential college town, a child caught in crossfire in Northeast Central Durham, a woman driving innocently down a city street or even if he is a gang member himself caught in a vicious tit-for-tat over turf. Any human life taken violently is a tragic waste.

-- No place is truly safe.  At the same time, most places are safe the vast majority of the time.  We cannot shield ourselves from all risk in this world – but neither should we be paralyzed by a creeping fear that trouble is just around the corner.

-- Given that, we can minimize risk. Being alert to our surroundings, being mindful of anyone who may be following or too oddly observing us, locking our doors and keeping an eye our neighbors and their property are all worthwhile safeguards. At the same time, being wary of someone just because he or she doesn’t look quite like us and is walking through our neighborhood is unwise, unproductive and unfair,

-- Those who resist prudent controls on firearms, especially high-powered, semi-automatic weapons, will no doubt point out that it was a rock that proved a fatal weapon in this case.  Still, far too many crimes involve firearms that serve no purpose other than violent assault; far too many arguments escalate from an exchange of words or even punches to mortal outcomes with handguns at hand.

-- Many will take issue with this, but too many people, especially young people, will be drawn to criminal activity until we can find a solution to the underlying challenges of poverty, disconnection, poor education and joblessness.

It is grimly coincidental that the assault on Liu occurred as, 10 miles away, Laurence Lovette was on trial for another stunning murder, that of Duke University student Abijit Mahato in 2008.  Lovette and Demario Atwater have been convicted in the murder just weeks after Mahato’s slaying of UNC student body president Eve Carson -- another murder that shattered Chapel Hill’s bucolic quiet.

Still, Chapel Hill and our flagship state university remain relatively safe places.  Fear would be the wrong reaction.

Prudence, and a redoubled commitment to solving those underlying problems, would be far better.