In Hadiya story, let's not rush to hatred

It's a long tale that led to 2 teens on different ends of the gun

Charges in Hadiya Pendleton shooting

Kenneth Williams, 20, left, and Michael Ward, 18, right, charged in connection with the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. Charged with first degree murder, 2 counts of attempt first degree murder, 2 counts of aggravated battery/discharge firearm. (CPD handout) (Chicago Police Department / February 11, 2013)

Do you know as much as you think you know about the suspects in Hadiya Pendleton's killing?

Don't be so sure.

The news was still fresh — two men arrested in the high-profile killing of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton — when I heard a newscaster shrink it to stereotypes:

Gang members arrested in the murder of an honors student.

Gang members. Honors student. With the snap of a sound bite, the accused and the victim were reduced to prime-time crime characters, one good, the other evil, case closed.

I'm not suggesting that Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, are innocent of the murder charges brought against them. They may be. They may not be. That's what trials are for.

But even if they're guilty, they are likely to be more complex than the stereotypes allow, and a rush to hatred is premature.

The prosecutors made a plausible case against them in court Tuesday. They say they have video of Ward's white Nissan fleeing the South Side park where Hadiya was shot to death on a rainy January afternoon. They say Ward told police he mistook one of Hadiya's friends for a member of a rival gang. When he fired into the group, he reportedly said, Hadiya was "just there."

All of that may be true. Even so, it's just a portion of the story, the long tragedy that led up to Hadiya's death.

According to the prosecutors, Ward told police the rival gang had killed one of his friends.

"It hurt, it hurt," he reportedly told police. "It hurt to a point where everyone had to go."

The two gangs, reportedly, had been in a shooting war for three years. A three-year cycle of revenge. Since Michael Ward was 15, 16. Hadiya's age. A little more than a boy, a little short of a man.

The story, of course, goes back much more than three years. It goes back to when these murder suspects were kids, to before they were born. It reaches deep into the decades, into the cycles of poverty and prison that have left generations of children growing up in jobless neighborhoods where fathers are absent and gangs are a form of family.

After Ward and Williams appeared in court Tuesday, and were sent back to jail without bail, a close friend of Hadiya's parents talked to reporters. He said the two men needed to be off the streets, but that the whole thing made him sad.

"I feel sad for Hadiya," he said, "and seeing those guys (in court), they looked sad, too, like little kids themselves."

It was a courageous thing to say. And generous. It's difficult to see villains as people too, but it's important. Only when we see the forces that shape bad behavior can we begin to fix it.

I went to Hadiya's wake last week. Almost everyone I talked to mentioned the lack of men to help guide children in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. As one man said, the fathers are either in prison, on drugs or dead. Boys raised without fathers grow up to be the next fathers who wind up in prison, on drugs or dead.

In the past few days, in response to Hadiya's killing, the mayor, the police superintendent and the state's attorney have made a push to toughen the sentences on people caught with illegal guns.

The approach seems to have helped reduce homicides in New York, but it should come with a caveat.

Even more young black men in prison? That may stanch the blood for a while, but it's just a finger in the dike. It could poke another hole.