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Steinberg: No longer alive, but a living symbol


Hadiya Pendleton

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:46AM

If January is any indication, another 500 people will be murdered in Chicago by the time 2013 is done. If not more.

Every single one will have a name, a family, a life cut short, loved ones left devastated.

And then there is Hadiya Pendleton.

She was as real as any of them — a pretty, vivacious sophomore at King College Prep High School on South Drexel, a good student, 15, a band majorette, who marched in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade days before she was killed while taking cover from the rain in a park shelter with friends.

After she was murdered on Jan. 29, however, Hadiya’s image took on a symbolic afterlife whose resonance in the past two weeks has only grown. First lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral along with the mayor and governor. President Obama talked about her in his inaugural address Tuesday, and came to Chicago Friday to focus on gun violence. Sen. Mark Kirk asked her family for permission to attach her name to his bill in the Senate that would make straw purchases of guns, so they can then be funneled to gangs, a federal crime.

What does Hadiya Pendleton mean now? We know who she was in life. In death, who is she becoming? A martyr? A saint?

She is a symbol, the representative, the metonymy that stands in for the whole, the way that Anne Frank is every child who died in the Holocaust. We cannot know them all, so instead we know one. Critics make much of the fact that Hadiya is the perfect poster child to foster sympathy for the victims of gun violence, but that is a given, a necessity — those who pluck out flawed victims and focus on their negatives are slyly arguing that gun victims deserve their fate — to think about Hadiya is to care about the human toll of gun violence.

Being a real individual, she concentrates the horror of something we knew was happening yet preferred to ignore, and reflects it to the public in a way that is unavoidable. She is the 2013 version of Kim Phuc — the 9-year-old Vietnamese girl whose moment of agony, stripping off her clothes after a napalm attack in 1972, was captured in an iconic photograph that echoed around the world. People already knew the Vietnam war was horrible — but after that photo they felt it in their hearts in a way they hadn’t before.

Usually, a photograph or video is what makes a victim iconic — Emmett Till in his casket, Rodney King being beaten. With Hadiya, the photos are all from that lost world of before, of youthful happiness before her murder — glamour shots, an ironic anti-gang video from the 6th grade, the participating kids, called upon to be serious, barely able to suppress their childish smiles. She represents the loss that a bullet can cause, the sweet world that is destroyed.

She is a focal point. Her name draws 25 million hits on Google. That will rise. It is a hashtag — #hadiya, or #hadiyapendleton, so people who tweet their thoughts on the situation can find each other. The opinions, as is inevitable in our opinion-saturated world, are countless and run the range of conceivable human response. They gather around her.

The tendency — perhaps the inevitability — is for this afterlife to flare for a while, for years perhaps, and then ebb away. For decades after 1964, when Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in a Queens alley, her name was synonymous with the issue of a callous society, of indifference — her cries for help were ignored by her neighbors, supposedly. Kitty Genovese was a famous name, the horror resonating for years. Today, not so much. (Later investigations questioned how much the situation had been misunderstood, how much her neighbors had actually heard).

The facts of Hadiya’s death seem beyond question — friends, seeking shelter, a case of mistaken identity. And the problem she represents is all too real, all too embedded in our culture, the pairing of two of our knottiest problems: guns and gangs.

Sorrow motivates people, and Hadiya is sorrow incarnate, today. We imagine we now have the strength, as a society, to do what should have been done before, but wasn’t. After the Titanic sank, people started taking maritime safety seriously, and for a century that ship became a symbol of man’s shortsightedness and the cost of our hubris. Ships began carrying more lifeboats.

Hadiya Pendleton is a symbol, now, of the heavy price paid for our love of guns, and for celebrating violence, the thug culture that grips our cities and feeds our gangs. How long her lovely, enigmatic face will linger before us, questioning us, challenging us — how long her name will be a rallying cry online, and whether the presidents and senators and pastors and ordinary people raising her banner and declaring this time it’s too much, will actually manage to do anything lasting and significant — is unknown. The young girl is gone and buried; the image, however, is just beginning its own extraordinary life.

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