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Murder on the Next Block Over

David Rosenbaum, the New York Times reporter who was attacked by two robbers Friday night and died from his injuries Sunday night, lived a block away from me in the Chevy Chase section of the District. He died two blocks from my place. I never met him, but I'd seen him jogging by.

One of the awful ironies of this tragedy is that he was attacked on what many of my neighbors consider the ideal Mayberry RFD block, a bunch of folks who are so close that they hold old-fashioned block parties. It's the kind of block where the kids play together and wander from house to house. It's not the kind of place where someone would stake out someone who was out on his evening constitutional.

But apparently that's what two bad guys did.

The result, in addition to a lot of sadness and anger, is a bit of a panic, an injection of fear that I've covered many times as part of my job, but never seen exactly where I live. Here's a neighbor who tells me he may not go out anymore for his evening walk to the mailbox to make certain his letters will be picked up first thing the next morning. Here's a friend who says she won't let her daughter walk home from school in the dark. Here's a neighbor who's thinking maybe she should take a taxi home from work instead of the Metro.

All quite reasonable, in a way, yet all also irrational. That's what crime does to us: It shakes us out of our daily, unthinking ways and forces us to think of a new calculus, a new matrix of security vs. convenience, safety vs. enjoyment. An unemotional analysis would tell us that our neighborhood is, with the possible exception of two bad actors who are still out there somewhere, exactly as safe as it has always been, which is to say very safe. But even the kids are asking who those bad guys are and when they'll be caught.

Mistrust seeps into our daily routines. Immediately, in conversations and on the neighborhood email lists, there are questions about the authorities' response and the medical care Rosenbaum received. He was taken by D.C. ambulance to Howard University Hospital. Would he have gotten better care if the Bethesda-Chevy Chase volunteer squad had been called? Would he have survived if he'd been taken to a better hospital? Was he taken to Howard solely because he was a John Doe? (The robbers had taken his wallet and the person who found Rosenbaum and called the authorities didn't know who he was.)

As it turns out, the initial reporting tells us that such questions are justified: The ambulance did not arrive for a shocking 22 minutes, having been dispatched from Providence Hospital in Northeast, more than five miles from the scene. Given that there are at least five hospitals closer to the neighborhood, that's appalling.

And even after Rosenbaum was taken into the ambulance, he was treated as if he'd had a stroke or some other health incident, rather than been the victim of a crime. The police are quoted in today's Post story defending themselves by saying that no one could tell Rosenbaum had been attacked. Um, how about the fact that an older gent was walking along a residential street with his earphones and music on him, but no wallet? Might that not be a clue?

The police are reaching out to the neighbors. Here's an email from the commander of the Second District police:

Good morning Chevy Chase community. In case you have not already heard, there was a robbery that occurred Friday night at about 9:30 pm in the 3800 block of Gramercy St., NW. This is located in PSA 202 of the Second District. It appears the victim was assaulted during the course of a robbery. The victim was taken to Howard University Hospital and succumbed to his injuries last night at approximately 7:15pm. This case is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department Violent Crimes Branch. The manner and cause of death has yet to be determined by the Medical Examiner. We ask that anyone with information related to this case to please call 202-727-9099.
This appears to be a random act of violence. As a result of this crime, you will see an increased police presence in the area of this robbery, during the evening hours. The officers assigned to the Second District are committed to protecting the visitors and residents of the District of Columbia. If there is any additional information or updates on this case, I will post them on the listserve.
Thank you for continuing to support your local law enforcement officers.
Cmdr. Robert J. Contee, III, 3320 Idaho Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20016, 202-282-0042, robert.contee@...

This incident will raise the usual questions about whether crimes are more important when they happen in more affluent areas, and whether incidents like this draw more official attention when the victims are somewhat prominent. Of course there are differences between how crime hits in one place versus another, and the sad truth about our lives is that some people must cope with far more heartache and danger than others.

But crime has a very similar effect whether it happens on the most violent blocks of Southeast or the most incident-free sections of Northwest: It makes people withdraw into their houses and away from each other. It further atomizes our existence, and in a society all too divided up by technology, that's a terrible thing. The answer of course is to resist all that and to insist on carrying on, leading even more public lives than ever before. But try telling that to the mom whose child is walking home at dusk, or the neighbor whose spouse gets home long after the sun vanishes. Crime destroys some lives. The rest of us get rattled.

By Marc Fisher |  January 10, 2006; 6:58 AM ET
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