Last school year, we were fortunate to have the help of a senior drive my two kids to school almost every day. He volunteered for the job so as to get a prime parking space. The fourth member of their car pool was a junior named Lily Burk, who lived less than a mile away from our house. Since my kids were only eighth graders, they were often left out of the conversation between the two upperclass members, but they still had a daily relationship with Lily. This is why my family is still having trouble coming to grips with Lily's brutal murder this past weekend, a crime of unbelievable senselessness and stupidity. My son is shocked into more than his usual non-responsiveness. My daughter is scared to get in the car without making sure that all of the doors are locked. Both can't believe that something like this could happen to someone they know. My wife and I can't stop thinking about it.
Is it possible to draw any useful lessons from such a horrifying event? Some people will try to second guess the parole system that allowed the alleged perpetrator, who had many encounters with the criminal justice system before, out on the street. But if we kept this parolee in prison longer, we would have to keep many hundreds of similar convicted criminals locked up as well, most of whom eventually need to learn how to return to society. This country already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and prisons often serve as breeding grounds for even more crime. We might take a bit of comfort from the knowledge that even though the system did not prevent this crime, it did try to keep this suspect under fairly tightly supervised release; and he was actually arrested by the police for another offense about an hour after the murder, long before this crime was even discovered. As soon as the police were led to the car and identified the fingerprints on it the next morning, they realized that they already had the suspect in custody. We also have no reason to worry about whether the perpetrator will be dealt with severely. So while no one would suggest that the criminal justice system worked perfectly in this case, it is also difficult to suggest a way to tighten up this system that would make us safer overall. What we should perhaps be thinking about is investing more in prison programs that have a proven success in reducing recidivism. (See for example this recent article in the New York Review about the surprising success of some programs, and the surprising amount of interest in this issue from figures on both the left and right of the political spectrum.)
Another reaction people have to this event is the urge to protect our children from crime. But we cannot lock our kids up either, and we cannot keep them under constant adult supervision until they are adults themselves. Instead we need to teach them how to develop their own street smarts, so they can learn how to recognize potential dangers and try to avoid them. Even then, we cannot prevent all dangers, as there was probably no way that poor Lily could have protected herself from this one. Lily in fact had volunteered at a homeless shelter, and was seemingly pretty well-prepared to deal with city life. Ultimately, what we may need to do is accept a certain amount of risk in our lives, as we do every time we get in a car, where we are much more likely to face death or injury than even on the mean streets of LA.
Perhaps most importantly, we just need to treasure the people around us and make the most of our time with one another. I can't say this any better than Lily's parents did:
“The thing we want people to know about Lily is that she was a beautiful person and that she was looking forward to her life. She was funny, warm, kind and empathetic. She was deeply and widely loved. Lily was looking forward to going to college, to being a writer, to what was ahead. She had a really bright future and it was cut short. If there is anything that people can take away from this horrible tragedy, it’s that life is fragile and that they should live every minute of it fully.”