Adam Toledo’s death was commonplace but must not numb us to the loss of life

Existence is nasty, brutish and short for many, but we should not lose our empathy

A memorial to 13-year-old Adam Toledo is growing at the site where he was shot dead by a police officer, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 19, 2021. REUTERS/Eileen T. Meslar     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Adam Toledo was 13 years old when he was shot dead during an encounter with police in Chicago. What is most shocking about that? Is it his age or that we are now largely numb to the frequency of killings in the US, whether it be by police on suspects or, more likely, gun crime or "another" mass shooting, such as the one at the Federal Express site in Indianapolis last Thursday night?

I have spent years digesting the news wires – the global agencies that push out the work of their correspondents around the clock. A suicide bombing here, a hostage-taking there, a smattering of celebrity, diplomatic developments and then an execution by terrorists or another attack that has claimed dozens of lives. Death becomes routine. Each life becomes less than a human, merely a number to be included in an article. Having a break from this grim consumption in my career certainly helped to return my empathy. But for a global audience – not for those in each community affected, of course – I think we have lost the capacity for shock when it comes to mass killings, even in countries where there is no war or constant terrorist activity, and particularly in the US, where random attacks now seem commonplace.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 19: Students from DeLaSalle High School participate in a statewide school walkout to draw attention to the recent deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo at the hands of police on April 19, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The walkout is on the day that closing arguments begin in the Derek Chauvin case. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer is accused of killing George Floyd while detaining him on May 25, 2020.   Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP
High school students participating in a walkout to protest police killings. AFP
He was a boy who should have become a young man and had a life

And what about Adam Toledo’s age? I had barely started to shave at 13, let alone found myself in an alley in the early hours one morning with armed police in pursuit. But then I was living in a well-to-do part of north London in the 1980s, not Chicago’s West Side in 2021. He was a boy who should have become a young man and had a life. If, as the police believed, he was carrying a gun when he was shot, it had been dropped by the time he was brought down and fighting for his life. The now widely watched police “bodycam” footage is painful to view and will be heart-breaking for the boy’s family and for the officers at the scene. This latest episode poses another question: who in their right mind would wish to join a police force or sheriff’s department in the US? What an impossible job, where the threat is constant and the working day is not far removed from “battlefield” conditions in some communities.

Before I left London for Abu Dhabi a few years ago, I was struggling a little with the city that is my birthplace but also where I have spent most of my life. It had begun to feel coarser. Drugs were used openly on the streets, reports of acid-throwing attacks were increasing. Smash-and-grab muggings by motorcycle gangs were commonplace and I witnessed one being attempted near where I lived. It felt more edgy than ever before and I didn’t like how it was changing.

But it wasn’t Chicago. The city’s population is less than a third of London’s, but last year 126 people were murdered in the UK capital while there were 774 homicides in Chicago. If London had the same murder rate it would have seen more than 2,000 murders, which, as a Londoner, is impossible to imagine.

Life for millions around the world is nasty, brutish and short, whether it be the effects of malnutrition, war, sheer misfortune of birth into deprivation or no opportunity for advancement. Boys the age of Adam Toledo should not be on the streets being chased by the police. But in some societies they are, and until all children are better protected and less exposed to the harshness of the adult world, he will not be the last child to be shot dead on the streets of a major city. I, for one, feel for this kid and his painfully sad death. We must not lose our capacity for empathy in a constantly challenging and violent world.