2002: John McCormick, Chicago Tribune
Award for Editorial Writing
Friday, March 29, 2002
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing

John McCormick

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From the dust will come justice

Sept. 11, 2001

There is an instant, before the grief sets in, when shock carries us from one moment to the next. It is our bridge, our momentary defense against the unimaginable.

This time the shock must carry us further than usual. The unfolding events of a sunny Tuesday morning will touch thousands and thousands of American families.

The grief will be as widespread as it is deep. It may be days before friends and acquaintances of the innocents realize their losses. Not since our wars - most recently Vietnam, and World Wars I and II and Korea before that - will so many be touched by the taking of lives.

The urge for a complete and instant explanation is as understandable as it is fruitless. No doubt that day will arrive, though even then it will not satisfy.

The events of Tuesday, shocking though they may be, aren't entirely a surprise. In recent years, terrorism experts have warned of this nation's vulnerability to sneak attacks, via biological weaponry, suitcase bombs or the kind of suicide attack from which modern transportation can't protect itself.

And yet we had grown complacent. Security had become routine, even a joke to many air travelers: Yes, yes, I packed my own bags.

Our carefree moments are over, buried in the gray dust that coated the dazed onlookers on streets of lower Manhattan after the first of the day's many tragedies.

From this day forward, our lives and our institutions will not be the same. This nation's sense of relative isolation from the kinds of disputes that have put the civilians of other lands squarely in harm's way - from the Middle East to the Congo to Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka to Colombia - now vanishes. If, as suspected, the assaults of Tuesday are in fact the work of murderers with international agendas, then our comparative indifference to world affairs likely will vanish with it.

Suddenly, with so many lives having tumbled like dominos, many of our most earnest concerns and obsessions - Did you see that hit on Monday Night Football? Do you think the lake will still be warm this weekend? - seem petty beyond belief. If a slowing economy already had brought pause to what, in retrospect, felt like a carefree era, this well-planned attack jars us into what passes, too sadly, for the modern world.

Often it is foolhardy to speculate on the American psyche. But we have just become a more serious people. The bombing of Pearl Harbor ended the lives of some 2,400 U.S. military personnel and 1,200 civilians. Tuesday's conflagrations claimed many more lives.

On this day, someone set out to frighten us. And succeeded. That we must admit.

Yet it would be dangerous to succumb in ways that would hearten the terrorists responsible for these acts.

That term, terrorist, comes not so much from the strength of the perpetrator, but rather from his ability to destroy the confidence of those he targets.

As Tuesday blossomed so tragically, most Americans were left to stare at screens filled with smoke, sprays of water from fire hoses - and expressions of fear for those who had suffered as well as those who would suffer next.

The fear, like the shock, is abundantly sensible. But not if we as a nation let those be our destinations. That would please those whose cowardice expresses itself in the capture of commercial airliners and the targeting of American landmarks.

For all that we as a people are feeling, this is a moment for quiet resolve. This nation has known 225 years of challenges and surmounted the lot.

It is reasonable to expect that America will change. Our losses will exceed this day's realization.

And yet the terror should not rest here. It should, and, in all likelihood, eventually will be turned back at those who today celebrate this broad river of American blood. In their twisted minds, this must be some mission of revenge.

But if our response is rooted in nothing more noble than vengeance, then that, too, cannot fully satisfy us.

The point here must be justice, the principle that inexactly has guided this country throughout its history.

That justice may not be swift. It is important, though, that it be sure.

For those who on Tuesday tore a part of America's heart, there must be one uneasy assurance: Life is long. We are not finished. And it is now they who must feel the terror.

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Children, praying for peace

Oct. 14, 2001

This is a confusing time for children. On television, they see grainy video of cluster bombs splashing into targets in Afghanistan. They also see President Bush explain the need to drop those bombs. And yet, in houses of worship and in some schools, they are encouraged to pray for what most kids really want: peace, and the sense of calm that accompanies it.

In many Roman Catholic schools, for example, students who know their nation is boldly waging war also are repeating the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most humble and lyrical works of Christendom: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope. ...” Elsewhere, many other children earnestly voice the parallel prayers of Muslim, Jewish and other faiths — or the spontaneous words that spring from their own young hearts.

Squaring the horror of war with entreaties for peace is difficult business. It's complicated further by the fact that for believers, prayer is the most personal of expressions. Suggesting that any other person should pray, let alone for what, would be fatuous and unwelcome.

But that noble principle doesn't begin to help parents who aren't sure how to help their kids understand something on which mainstream Jews, Muslims and Christians largely agree: the concept of a just war. For those who think the current military operation fits the rigorous demands of that concept, waging war while praying for peace is a profoundly acceptable paradox.

That sentence is anathema to pacifists, many of whom have lived their faith in recent weeks by urging that this nation either turn the other cheek or attempt to gain legal convictions of those who sponsor terrorism. Pacifism requires guts, especially when a rising chorus of cries for justice demand not legal action, but military.

In the face of unarguable danger, though, pacifism can be a worthy conclusion in desperate search of a logical rationale. And when that danger is so palpable that it has already obliterated some 6,000 lives, pacifists determined to put their principle above all others can fall into a tempting trap: the accusation that those who disagree with them want only vengeance and blood.

Not necessarily. The regrettable truth is that some people need to be fought to keep them from annihilating innocents. Writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio host Scott Simon, a Quaker, noted: “About half of all draft age Quakers enlisted in World War II, believing that whatever wisdom pacifism had to give the world, it could not defeat the murderous schemes of Adolf Hitler and his cohorts.”

Peace, then, isn't best defined as the short-term absence of fighting. Instead it embodies the long-term goal of safety and calm after an injustice is punished, or a threat eliminated. Some children can best comprehend this when it’s likened to standing up to an injurious bully, or using medicine to stop a ravaging disease.

Even when invoked, war must be played by moral rules. Islam, Judaism and Christianity generally concur that war should be a last resort; should be fought for the right motive, such as self-defense; should inflict the least possible harm on innocent parties; and should produce benefits that outweigh its terrible costs.

Wherever possible, war also should not march alone. Diplomacy should continue. So should kindness. Bush's call for American children to come to the aid of malnourished or starving Afghan children gives parents a golden chance to teach the difference between hatred and help.

Even that mix of messages - let alone the broader suggestion that one can pray for peace while waging a just war - can confuse the youngest among us. That, of course, is why they have parents or grandparents or other grown-ups in their lives: to explain what to a child seems inexplicable. If we are willing to do the job.

The fact that so many countries have banded together in this effort makes it easier to explain. So does the significant, and unexpected, vote last week by a 56-nation group, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to implicitly support a targeted campaign against the Taliban.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, more than a few children came home from school frightened by the thought that a war had just begun - and that they would somehow have to fight it.

The temptation for parents was to say that's impossible. But it is more honest to explain that unless some courageous people stop global terrorists now, what those children feared could come true after years of nightmares like Sept. 11.

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The Renaissance of Black Chicago

March 11, 2001

Michael Chandler's black sedan glides unnoticed down the streets of North Lawndale on Chicago's West Side. It was here that Chandler, then 15, watched the sky over his parents' house turn orange as commercial strips along Pulaski Road and Madison Street erupted in flames after the killing of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Chandler is now 48 and represents North Lawndale as the alderman of the 24th Ward. It's a mostly poor area still scarred by vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. But Chandler can point to some remarkable changes: the attractive shopping center anchored by a Dominick's food store and a 10-screen Cineplex Odeon theater; block upon block of newly built homes near the old Sears headquarters; the big community center and indoor pool now being built; the stylish stretch of Millard Avenue that appears to have been airlifted in from Lakeview; the new Albany on the Park Townhomes off Ogden Avenue that black families purchased for $250,000 apiece. “I’d never say we've made it until we bring everyone along,” Chandler says. “But there is real progress here. I say that with confidence.”

Chandler could be speaking for much of Black Chicago - both the neighborhoods and the populace. The past decade has seen substantial improvements by almost every social, educational or economic measure. Most of this growth has come, not from the good works or wishes of outsiders, but from determination within the African-American community itself. Chandler is correct: much has been done, and yet much remains to be done.

This concrete progress, as opposed to the well-meant but often empty hopes of earlier years, is happening repeatedly - but not uniformly - throughout Black Chicago. Yes, many areas remain bleak and dangerous for those who must live in them. Still, as many numbers and neighborhoods attest, the overall changes are as crucial for the long haul as they are lacking in instantaneous drama. Slowly but surely, many of the statistics and images that document the difficulties of African-Americans here, and elsewhere, have begun to reverse.

This is not the portrait of Black Chicago that most of us see in TV news reports of murders and drug busts. That media fascination - the only view many whites ever get of black neighborhoods - would have us believe every block is swathed in yellow police tape.

But look closer. This week, early numbers from the 2000 U.S. Census should document not only the big growth of the Latino population here, but also the freer movement of middle-class black families throughout the metropolitan area. That easier migration reflects important facets of both race and class: Rising fortunes have given more black families the means to live in safe neighborhoods and send their kids to good schools.

The pending release of census data prompts a look at other measures of black Chicagoans over the last decade. Crime rates are down. So are teen pregnancies. In Chicago's public schools, the black dropout rate is down, the graduation rate is up and many more African-American students are taking Advanced Placement courses. The number of low-income census tracts in the Chicago area has dropped by 12 percent, with the percentage of residents who live in them (many of whom are black) declining 22 percent. Future census data will show sharp increases in employment and income. Another plus: the razing of CHA high-rises that not only dead-ended many families, but also overwhelmed and stigmatized entire black neighborhoods.

Why the progress? Conventional wisdom says black advances stem largely from a record-long U.S. economic boom that, despite its current perils, is now marking its 10th anniversary. And yet many African-Americans disagree with that simplistic view, telling survey researchers that the more important reasons include the work of black churches and a culture of black self-help.

Those notions dovetail with changes in the way blacks view themselves. Three measurements:

  • Michael Dawson, chair of political science at the University of Chicago and a student of black attitudes, says his most recent polling found plenty of pessimism about race relations, but “the highest economic confidence among African-Americans that I've ever seen.”
  • In 2000, majorities of U.S. blacks and whites (64 and 67 percent) told researchers from the U of C's National Opinion Research Center that they are better off than their parents were. But black respondents were more likely than whites (74 to 57 percent) to say their children’s lives will be better than their own. And the share of African-Americans who say blacks are at least as hardworking, intelligent and non-violent as whites leaped 20 points in 10 years, to about 75 percent. As NORC’s Tom W. Smith concludes: “There's certainly no veil of pessimism dominating the black perspective.”
  • In 1999, black respondents saying welfare reform has meant not only more jobs for blacks (57 percent), but also more black self-reliance (63 percent). Blacks were more likely than whites to say that their incomes, job opportunities and quality of education had improved.

Drawing broad conclusions about black Chicagoans, not just in the city but in the diaspora fanning out more than ever to the suburbs, risks generalizing too much about a community with lots of subgroups and opinions. What’s more, skepticism about progress abounds, among both blacks who see enduring injustices and whites who don’t grasp improvements among blacks.

Some of that is understandable. This is a metro area of 8 million people, most of whom have deeply rooted opinions about race and class. It’s in the interest of many - whites, mostly, but a few blacks with a stake in the status quo as well - to minimize what’s begun to occur. Or who, at the least, still hold impressions of Black Chicago that haven’t changed as much as the city has.

But in the aggregate, the evidence is inescapable.

Look around. Scores of new houses and rehabs dot the streets that flank Drexel Boulevard on the city’s South Side - places that haven’t seen new construction in a half-century or more. More houses have popped up from once-weedy lots near Lake Park Avenue. But the clash of old and new images can be jarring. A few blocks west, near Cottage Grove Avenue, a lot advertised as “Prime Bronzeville Vacant Land” sits next to a dilapidated house flanked by two junked jalopies.

But the investment is telling. New homes in chancy neighborhoods represent not only the calculated aspirations of the families who buy them, but also the long-range faith of flinty-eyed lenders now investing money in neighborhoods that many of them long ignored.

In North Lawndale, recent buyers include people who have always lived there as well as others who, in order to be closer to their families and jobs, have returned to Chicago from Oak Park and other suburbs. In the struggle to better their neighborhoods, they win a few and lose a few. Last month, for example, Chandler got the city to trim trees and add lighting on Lawndale Avenue — and then gathered for three nights with dozens of his constituents for what he calls “positive loitering” to drive away the drug dealers. As North Lawndale improves, Chandler also is preparing black residents for the arrival, just now starting, of white families. “Remember,” he drolly tells constituents, “you can’t discriminate against people over the color of their skin.”

The comeback of many black neighborhoods would be more convincing if more retailers would get into the act. There’s an appalling lack of even middlebrow stores in many areas, a throwback to a time when businesses followed customers out of the inner city. The hope now is that census data will persuade them to return to areas where per-capita income is on the rise.

Which raises a question: Whenever the economy fades, will Black Chicag's progress fade with it?

Perhaps, especially for the so-called bottom third, the former welfare recipients now in the most marginal jobs. But many African-Americans are in a stronger position than they were during the brutal double-dip recessions of 1980-82. Today’s professional and skilled workers are often more entrenched and experienced, arguably less vulnerable to panicky downsizings.

The future, though, isn't entirely bright. By many measures, the improvements of the last decade leave African-Americans well short of whites. Too many students aren't getting the parental care and educations they need; too many neighborhoods must some day absorb an unskilled prison population that is disproportionately black. Dawson, the U of C prof, worries that poor blacks are being pushed from a reviving inner city to the borders of Chicago and some suburbs beyond. He also warns that accumulation of family wealth — housing equity, investments, retirement accounts — is inadequate. Politically, the growth of Hispanic Chicago could mean bitter rivalries over resources and clout.

Progress, then, is no reason for Chicago to turn its back on the needs of black citizens. Too many remain a people apart, living lives that are separate and unequal.

But neither should all of us overlook the many improvements that for too long have been elusive.

Those working to rebuild communities devastated by the loss of jobs and rise of crime should be proud. They have created more than a glimmer of something this city has long needed: the renaissance of Black Chicago.

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Blood money and the Bears

July 15, 2001

Imagine the frustration of those in City Hall and Halas Hall who have worked so hard to get a new football stadium for the Chicago Bears.

There’s the mayor, Richard Daley. The team chairman, Michael McCaskey. The city planners, architects and elected officials who did just what Daley and McCaskey wanted - and who don't like hearing that they are desecrating a war memorial on Chicago’s lakefront for private gain. They’re all so gosh-darn weary from long years of effort. They just want it all to end.

Of course there is frustration, and then there is frustration. Imagine you're no older than one of the Bears’ wealthy young draftees. But imagine that, instead of packing up your Porsche to head to football summer camp, you’re lying face-down in a European farm field, coughing toxic gas out of your lungs. Imagine your heart pounds with terror. Imagine realizing that, even if the cool mud beneath your cheek doesn’t feel so bad, the hot, sticky wound gouged by one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s bullets is slowly bleeding the life out of you. Chances are you’d want it all to end, too.

In the years after World War I, this city vowed to honor its fallen soldiers. It also showed respect for the many who considered themselves unlucky to be alive: veterans poisoned or crippled or shell-shocked in the supposed war to end all wars. Chicago dedicated its proud new Soldier Field to war vets — and swore that it would never, ever forget the catastrophic personal price they had paid for our freedom.

But, hey, so what? Last week the Chicago Park District Board curtsied dutifully to the plan by Daley and McCaskey to put a big, repulsive bowl inside skeletal remains of Soldier Field. Without discussion or public comment, the five board members present - Mona Castillo, William Bartholomay, Margaret Burroughs, Anita Cummings and Gerald Sullivan - unanimously voted to fast-track the $582 million project.

Even brief discussion would have exposed this ramrod civic malpractice for what it is. As a Tribune story put it: “In essence, a private sports team will use public money to build a public stadium to be used primarily for the benefit of the privately owned team.” And yet the public gets only pretend hearings and hurried voice votes on that project’s grossly unattractive design.

But the sham vote wasn’t last week’s greatest indignity. Daley and the Bears expect some big corporation to take leave of its senses and pay perhaps $250 million to puts its name on a ruined war monument for the next 30 years. Veterans groups are angry, and the lip-service inclusion of a memorial wall in the new design hasn’t bought them off. In fact, veterans young and old have packed the few public sessions where the stadium plan has been considered.

So, figuring that everybody’s got a price, the Bears — no doubt with City Hall’s approval — now have offered the soldiers blood money, just like compensation paid to a victim’s descendants: If you people stop screaming about our stadium deal, we’ll cut veterans causes in for $200,000 a year. We and the park district will decide where the money goes. And we’ll all pretend this bribe is a heartfelt honor to the brave war vets whose children still grieve at their graves. “This has been in the works for a long time — pretty much since the beginning,” offers a Bears spokesman. Sure it has, and the rising temper of veterans had nothing to do with it.

Maybe some veterans will grovel for the money; every group this big has its little Judases. But other veterans, many of them fighting the last public battle of their lives, should resist. They should not sell their souls — or the legacy of veterans who are not here to fight. They, like the rest of us, should protest all the louder, even as Daley tries to rush the stadium deal and stifle debate.

As he showed with another bout of histrionics when asked last week about the opposition, the mayor is rattled. He doesn’t want a stadium that people ridicule to sully his own legacy. Nor do he, McCaskey and others already stained by this fiasco want their children’s children apologizing decades from now for a monstrosity they put on Chicago’s supposedly protected lakefront.

But the opponents won’t go away. As more Chicagoans see depictions of how out of scale this bad marriage of new and old architecture would be, Daley and McCaskey’s only escape route is to project an air of inevitability. Forget it. This deal is done. You people need to shut up and move on. Maybe Daley and McCaskey will prevail. But their refusal to open up the process for real public debate must first withstand a court challenge from Friends of the Parks, an advocacy group steelier than its prissy name suggests. The first judge on the case has shown he may not buckle as quickly as Daley’s cronies at the Chicago Plan Commission, the City Council, the Illinois legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Daley and the Bears must reopen the question of siting and designing this stadium.

Their plan meets their needs. But this is a public stadium on public ground, paid for with public money. Neither Daley nor the Bears can violate Chicago’s lakefront, especially when neighborhoods such as Comiskey Park’s would avoid the pitfalls and encourage other development on the South Side.

The Bears’ crass, desperate offer of money for silence should energize opponents of this carelessly designed stadium plan. Too many scared and lonely young Americans died in European farm fields — and too many Chicagoans promised to remember their ultimate sacrifice by christening Soldier Field — to let a mayor and a private company ride roughshod over honor.

At some point, it will be the people of Chicago who grow weary of hearing Daley and the Bears say they just want this over. When what they really mean is, we just want our way.

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Eric Lee, and all that went right

Aug. 24, 2001

So much went right Sunday night. So many of the attributes of big-city police officers that virtually all citizens agree is the ideal.

When he started his shift, Eric Lee was just what Chicago’s drug- and gang-ridden Englewood neighborhood needs more of: a veteran officer, a former Marine with a magna cum laude university degree, whose personnel file spoke to his nine years of good judgment on the job. He had volunteered to be a tactical officer, an especially dangerous line of police work. He had passed up his once-every-month options to “bid out” of Englewood for easier duty in a less stressful district. Friends say he liked the people of Englewood, enjoyed the uphill struggle to make their lives safer.

When Lee and two partners spotted a down-and-out man being pummeled in an alley, they hurried to help the victim and announced that they were the police. In some cities, complaints about “disengagement” are on the rise — assertions that officers too often look the other way, don’t want to take risks, avoid confrontations that could lead to accusations of misconduct. But Lee and his partners engaged, just as they’d been trained to do.

When the assailants fled, Lee didn’t open fire. In a rapidly unfolding situation that surely had his adrenaline pumping, he stuck well within police department guidelines on use of deadly force and “proportional response” to the threat posed by the assailants.

When one of those assailants unexpectedly fired, dropping Lee, his partners, too, showed restraint. They had every reason to fear for their safety — and thus every legal right to shoot the shooter. Even those who accuse some cops of being trigger-happy couldn’t have squawked. Instead, Lee’s partners arrested a convicted felon, confiscated his still-loaded gun — and filed the reports that accuse him of killing their friend.

When they learned what had happened, Lee’s other friends back at the station flung black arms around white shoulders, and vice versa. They cried colorless tears on blue shirts. They poured out sorrow in a moment that revenge or frustration or anger might have kidnapped.

So now the most vulnerable of Chicago’s citizens no longer have Eric Lee, just as they no longer have Brian Strouse or James Camp or John Knight or Michael Ceriale, the four other policemen — all tactical officers — who have been shot to death since August of 1998.

Their deaths came as shocks but not, unfortunately, as surprises. Police work is risky. Lee, like the others, had chosen to make it more risky by pursuing the toughest challenges, and often the toughest criminals.

When police officers break rules or laws, and citizens die, there is a proper cry for justice. But when it’s the officers who die, many of us recalibrate our reactions. We may mourn, but because we expect officers to work in harm’s way on our behalf, too many of us accept the odds that some of them won’t come home.

Eric Lee’s wife and his 6-year-old daughter don’t have that intellectual luxury. They must go Friday to his funeral.

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