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I remember purse snatchings. For a time in the 1980s, they were the crime of choice in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
Back then, when young thugs preyed on women for little more than grocery money, the crimes almost always looked the same. The thief would run by, snatch the purse and take off at a dead run. Perhaps the victim would cry out, or fall down, or feebly give chase, but she rarely lost more than her pocketbook and its contents. She was always able to walk away.
Four purse snatch-related shootings have taken place since January. Twenty-nine-year-old Melissa Thomas was killed and a companion was wounded when two hooded men took their purses and shot both women at 53rd and Pine. A 23-year-old woman’s purse was snatched on the 2600 block of West Lehigh Ave., and her 24-year-old boyfriend was shot and wounded when he gave chase. Amber Long, 26, was shot to death in front of her mother during a purse snatching in Northern Liberties.
Two men have been arrested in connection with the shooting on Lehigh Avenue. The other perpetrators remain at large. As of our deadline, police couldn’t provide a statistical comparison detailing whether purse snatch crimes have increased since last year.
We do, however, know this: In the wake of these most recent crimes, all of us have lost something much more valuable than the contents of a purse. We have lost our sense of direction.
The response to these purse snatch murders has been anything but quiet. By mounting demonstrations, holding vigils, and rightly expressing outrage, women are beginning to say that men are failing them. While correctly stating that only a small number of people are engaging in this activity, men are railing against a crumbling code of the streets.
Media rushes to the murder scenes. Cameras record the families’ grief. But in the quiet moments between press conferences and demonstrations, when the blood of needlessly slaughtered women speaks out to us all, one question rises above the din: Why?
Dr. Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and the former president of the American Psychological Association, said we don’t yet know enough about the perpetrators to give a definitive answer. But he speculated that the reasons were complicated.
“It’s usually difficult to decompress any crime into one single motive,” Farley told me. “Excitement, thrill, arousal, and then there’s the money and anything else you can get. It’s a complex motivation. It’s a recipe with several ingredients.”
But Farley said there is one common factor in each of these crimes—guns.
“You may have no intention of killing, but once you unleash the lions of violence anything can happen,” Farley said. “You may get a struggle, and the excitement ensues. There are chemical changes going on and you’ve got a gun and that impulse control plummets and you’ve got a shooting.”
Without the guns, perhaps the outcome would be different. Perhaps the women would still be alive. But I believe the underlying issue would remain, because men victimizing women is not new. Nor is it limited to any culture, demographic, or place. When I see men killing women over purses, however, I see something different; something that repulses even those who routinely see the worst of humanity.
“It’s bad enough that these individuals would violate a woman by taking her purse to begin with,” said Police Spokesman Lt. John Stanford. “But to kill a woman in cold [blood] over that very bag is cowardly and disgusting to say the least. There was a time when hurting a woman and a child was off limits, but even that respect on the street has diminished.”
Stanford said police have responded to the rash of killings with increased patrols in areas where the purse-snatch shootings have taken place. They are urging women to be alert, cautious and aware of their surroundings, and asking them to call police if something seems amiss. As with all homicides, the city has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the two purse-snatch killings.
Those are concrete steps, but to me they seem hollow, just like the men who’ve committed these crimes. In my estimation, a man who would shoot a woman when she poses no threat to him is beyond cowardly. He is empty, and that is more frightening than anything else a man could be.
Because a man who is empty cannot envision a future, he cannot see beyond the moment. And deep down in a place none of us can see, perhaps he doesn’t want to. Such a man has no regard for his own life, so it’s virtually impossible for him to have any concern for the lives of others.
Beyond the thrill of the moment and the chemical reaction it engenders, beyond the rewards for information and the condemnation of these crimes, we are dealing with emptiness. So perhaps there is a bigger question than, “Why?” Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What now?”
If we are wise, the answer to that question will include seeking ways to prevent other men from becoming empty. It will include finding ways to fill them up before they kill women for thrills.
If we don’t make that investment, we will face a future with more empty men, and if we allow that to happen, all of us will have lost our way.