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Dale H. Fredericks
Gunnery Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
News Report: June 27, 1993

    The Washington Post built its reputation on its coverage of national politics, but when I read The Post, I do it with the eye of someone fishing for news about his hometown. I often gravitate first to the Metro section to see what's happening in the real world of D.C. and environs. An edition I picked up a few days ago left me both outraged and heartsick.

  The crime stories infesting those few pages weren't unique -- the nation's capital, as everyone knows, has been right up there with Miami and Detroit as a venue for violence. But the stories spoke to me of just how deranged things have become on the streets of a city that ought to be our national pride, not our disgrace.

  Dale H. Fredericks was a Marine gunnery sergeant whose mission was a very special one -- to make music. He played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band, that famous ceremonial outfit led for years by John Philip Sousa himself. He well deserved his spot in Arlington National Cemetery -- but not yet.

The evening of Friday, June 11, Fredericks performed with the band in its weekly concert at the old Marine Barracks in southeast Washington, a few blocks from Capitol Hill. He left afterwards in his white, 1987 Mazda RX-7 and drove to a friend's house in Fairfax, Virginia, about 15 miles outside the city. He was followed.

The pursuers didn't know him, authorities say. They just wanted his car. When Fredericks stopped and got out, he was forced to lie in the street and then shotgunned in the head.

After the car was found on the other side of the District, investigators used fingerprints to identify two Washington youths, ages 18 and 17, as suspects. They were arrested a week after the killing. Fredericks had a wife and two-year-old son.

I imagine that Fredericks, who had been in the band for seven years, was playing the last time I heard it, one lambent summer evening on the West Front of the Capitol. If you watched Bill Clinton's inauguration, you can envision the scene -- bandsmen arrayed on the terrace, and behind them the Mall unfolding past the monuments to the grand Arlington ridge on the sunset horizon.

It was an idyllic moment that made me glad to be alive and glad to be an American. Growing up around Washington and returning often, I'm no stranger to such moments.

But this is a city where crime born of poverty and desperation and rage now has smitten the soul. Your visit will almost certainly occur without incident, if you use common sense -- but you can no longer go there free of a whisper of fear.

For thousands of residents trapped in the inner city, that fear cries aloud. Friday's Post announced that 16 people had been slain just since Monday. One was an 80-year-old widow who was found with her throat slit in the Capitol Hill house where she had lived for 40 years.

  And there's a terrifyingly random aspect to the violence, as when a gunman blasts away at children in a swimming pool (another of last week's shockers) or picks out freeway drivers as his targets.

The fact is that Washington is far safer for tourists, who usually stick to  well-traveled paths among the national shrines downtown, than it is for people who live and work there. But this month, 72-year-old Noel Fitzpatrick, on vacation from his small town in England, was shot to death after he evidently got off the subway at the wrong stop in a bad section.

City officials say they believe Fitzpatrick was the only tourist murdered there in recent years. But as The Post reports, the city is enduring a flood of terrible exposure in British newspapers. If our capital is perceived by those abroad as too dangerous to visit, what does that say about our country?

What it says is that we have a grotesque problem on our hands -- an awful concatenation of guns, drugs, failed families, dashed hopes, perverse and destructive values. Among the young, particularly, it is a plague. And we know who teaches the young.

The sickness is worst in the impoverished streets of our big cities. But symptoms abound. In the same Metro section reporting arrests in the Fredericks case and the reaction to Fitzpatrick's death, The Post told of a cemetery in outlying Marshall, Virginia, trashed by vandals. More than 270 tombstones had been toppled and spray-painted. Townspeople gathered to repair the damage as best they could and to mourn a cruel assault on their heritage.

  In a sense, I wouldn't blame you if you left this column reminding yourself to steer clear of D.C. and giving thanks that you live in safe, comfortable North Carolina.

  Yet we know better than to be so complacent. The symptoms have appeared here, too. To save not just our capital but our country, the causes must be fought with all the ingenuity and courage and resolve at our command.


Posted: 23 July 2000 Updated: 5 January 2007