On a run, looking for answers about an inexplicable crime

by David Alm on July 15, 2011

By now you’ve likely heard about the ghastly murder of an 8-year-old boy in Brooklyn earlier this week.

Walking home from day camp, Leiby Kletzky got lost and simply asked the wrong stranger for help. He was suffocated, dismembered, and distributed to various places near the neighborhood in which he lived. It was a horrible crime that has left an entire community reeling — the murderer, like his victim, was an Orthodox Jew, and they both lived among their own in a tidy, middle-class neighborhood near Prospect Park.

When news broke Tuesday morning of the boy’s disappearance, I was not aware that it happened so close to where I live. I was appalled by the story, of course, but when you live in New York you become a bit numb to stories of murder and violence. It’s inevitable. It wasn’t until yesterday that I learned that parts of Leiby Kletzky were found inside a red suitcase placed in a dumpster just seven short blocks from my home. Suddenly my heart sank into my stomach.

Maybe it’s because I know exactly what I was doing at the time of Leiby’s disappearance, and while I didn’t see Levi Aron, the suitcase, or any other part of the crime, just knowing that I could have seen something, had I simply taken a walk that way, left me feeling hollow and sick.

Last night, at the start of an evening run, I decided to go a few blocks out of my way to run down 20th Street, where the suitcase had been found, to see if I could see the dumpster. I felt ambivalent about doing this. I wondered why I wanted to see it. And yet I couldn’t resist.

I saw a dumpster, though I can’t confirm that it was the dumpster. It doesn’t matter. I was on the block, looking at the same buildings, the same fire hydrants, the same neighbors sitting on their front stoops that Levi Aron saw just a few days earlier as he tried, sloppily, eerily, to erase what he’d done. It was enough.

I felt sick for the rest of my run, but not just for the heinous crime against an innocent boy, his family, or all the other parents in Brooklyn who must be shaken to their cores right now. I felt sick because I didn’t know what compelled me to run down that block, looking for that dumpster.

I made my way to Prospect Park, a bucolic oasis of trees and dirt trails in the middle of a concrete jungle where I run every day, and failed to see any of the beauty. All I saw was 20th Street between 4th and 5th Avenues, the dumpster that may have been the one, the images from the news of Levi Aron and Leiby Kletzky.

And I never found an answer to my own question: Why, when tragedy strikes, do we feel it more acutely when it happens in our own backyards ?

Desiree July 15, 2011 at 7:37 am

I think you answered your own question, David. It is because it happened close to our home, where we feel safe and secure. Where we think- I walk (or run) these streets everyday and nothing happens, therefore a tragedy like that will never happen here. Then, when it does, our false sense of security shatters and we become vulnerable. We start thinking about our own mortality and become connected to the victim and their family united in the tragedy of what happened. I don’t know if this is how you feel, but it is how I can explain what I’m feeling.

David Alm July 15, 2011 at 7:49 am

Thanks, Desiree. You’re right, but I also find it troubling that we’re more likely to *feel* something if a tragedy like this happens close to our homes. A boy was murdered and brutally dismembered, left to rot in a dumpster. That should register sickness no matter where it happens — whether 7 blocks or 700 miles from where one lives. I agree that it shatters our sense of security, but why does that happen only when the crime is local? Humanity is humanity, after all, and if someone is capable of doing something awful here, they can do it elsewhere, and vice versa. Yet we only *feel* it when it happens close by, or at least we feel it more. As I said, I’m bothered by this, and I wish I understood it more than I do.

Kelly Martinson July 15, 2011 at 9:34 am

I am thousands of miles away and have felt quite ill about this one. I think you simply feel it more because all of the “characters” in the play are part of your everyday. I think we all have a natural desire to make sense of it. That’s why we read the articles. We want to know why. What drove this man to commit such an awful crime. We want to know that he is insane so we don’t worry that anyone could do this. For you, being close affords you the opportunity to actually see – but you’re only looking for the same answers the rest of us are.

David Alm July 16, 2011 at 9:29 am

Well put, Kelly. The quest for understanding is no doubt a huge part of it — and why we read and write period. It’s an attempt to explain the inexplicable, or at least try to frame our experience in a way that helps us make sense of things. Even if it’s in vain.

Jeff McMahon July 15, 2011 at 9:51 am

I’ve had too many occasions (including this one and this one) to ponder and write about this phenomenon. You’ve given us some good reasons to be horrified by crimes that occur near our homes, David and Desiree and Kelly, but here are some other possible explanations:

1. Because we know the area so well, it’s easier to visualize in detail what happened there. The words abduction, murder, and dismemberment cease to be printed abstractions, come off of the page and animate within the concrete details of their setting.

2. Crime takes all of us from a state of innocence to a state of solemn knowledge. All of us: perpetrator, victim, witnesses, neighbors, and all of the informed. That passage from innocence to knowledge will be more acute for those who have passed in a state of innocence through the very locations where the transformation to knowledge took place.

3. This is almost a re-expression of #2 but not quite: It’s one thing to visit a crime scene when you know a crime has taken place there. It’s entirely another thing to know a crime scene before the crime occurred there and then to have that location changed within you by some horror that transpired there.

4. Finally, and this is the eeriest explanation of all, our senses and minds register time linearly to operate sanely, but time is not a linear feature of the universe. The four dimensions coexist, at least according to our current ideas about the universe. This means that when you’re standing at a crime scene, you’re present at the crime in three of the four dimensions and only separated from it by a fold in time. It’s happening right there, in a timeless sense, right now, and always.

David Alm July 16, 2011 at 9:24 am

Thanks for this, Jeff. Your final point is especially compelling. And it seems to capture and explain precisely what I was feeling all week after I learned how close the murder was to my home. And the experience of running down the block with the Dumpster was chilling, to say the least.

What I found especially chilling, too, was how if you didn’t know a crime had occurred there, you’d never be able to tell. It was just another evening on a block in Brooklyn. No police tape, no sign of an investigation. Just people on their stoops, taking walks, putting old furniture out on the sidewalk for others to pick up.

There was even a small cluster of Orthodox Jews standing on the block, close together, having what looked like a serious conversation. I can imagine that it was about the murder, but it could have just as easily been about anything else.

Life goes on, and in a sense, we’re surrounded by atrocities and tragedies all the time, wherever we go. We’d go mad if we were always in tune with that.

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