The War at Home

Four Angelenos were killed on the last day of the battle for Baghdad. Three were young men, each one of them killed with a bullet to the head on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. The fourth to die was an 8-year-old girl, hit by a bullet meant for a gang member.

Before the war with Iraq was hailed as a war of liberation, our leaders described it as a war that would make America safe. And while our victory in Baghdad might indeed make us more secure in the long term, for now, our streets are killing fields.

From March 20-April 6, as war in Iraq raged, at least 14 people died as a result of homicides here in Los Angeles, including five in one weekend in South Central Los Angeles. Needless to say, the murderers weren’t Islamic terrorists or Iraqi Republican Guards.

“Today, on a beautiful 85-degree day, we had three assassinations,” said Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton of April 9. “Three black men walked up and assassinated three other black men. The fourth man missed, and his bullet hit a girl in a schoolyard.”

Bratton was speaking at the Latino Jewish Roundtable organized by the Anti-Defamation League and held at the Los Angeles Police Academy. It was strangely like a war briefing on Iraq. Bratton, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Jewish and Latino leaders all gathered to address the daily casualties, the state of the battle, the need for more troops and resources.

But there was almost no media at this briefing, and the four murders Bratton spoke of didn’t make the Los Angeles Times the next day, or the day after. Gang problem? What gang problem?

The homicide rate in Los Angeles has doubled in each of the last five years. Last year, there were 350 gang-related homicides and countless more shooting victims (the department hasn’t begun keeping statistics on the wounded, the maimed and the terrified). The gang members are largely poor and black or Latino. The neighborhoods they victimize are South Central, East Los Angeles and the fringes of the San Fernando Valley. But to think that we can ignore a battlefield because it’s a freeway overpass away from us is not only cruel and immoral, but shortsighted. When those shootings spill over into our neighborhoods, as happened in Westwood in 1988, the effects on our own sense of safety and local economies are devastating.

Why are there no Jewish gangs? Of course, there used to be. In New York City at the turn of the century, murderous crews controlled immigrant neighborhoods through violence and the threat of violence. Then as now, it is a minority of a minority that creates gang culture. And it is a combination of law enforcement, education, social intervention and economic opportunity that obliterates it.

“It is no coincidence that the majority of gang violence happens in the poorest part of the city,” said Santa Monica School Board member Oscar de la Torre.

And it is no mystery how to reduce the killing.

In the early 1990s, the City of New York’s Safe Street Fund, raised by a surcharge on the sales tax, financed a gang initiative that included after-school programs, criminal justice system improvements and increased law enforcement. The result? In Bratton’s 27-month term as police commissioner in New York City, violent felonies fell by a third and homicides were cut in half. “What do we do to get the paying public to set up a special taxing fund to deal with gang problems in L.A. County?” Bratton said.

For Bratton and Baca, the real tragedy is not that there are no life-saving solutions, just that we, the taxpayers, don’t want to pay for them.

“We can do this,” Bratton said. “It’s been done. We have the cure but we can’t use it.”

I asked Baca how much, bottom line, he’s looking for. The answer, he said, is $250 million-$300 million. That’s a lot of money, but according to the National Priorities Project, City of Los Angeles taxpayers will end up shelling out $834.8 million to pay for the war in Iraq. Baca’s price tag for rescuing hundreds of young men from certain death, for keeping neighborhoods free from domestic terror, for turning thousands of lives around — for ensuring the safety and productivity of our entire city — seems like a bargain.

“Look,” Baca said, “I’m a Republican. I don’t want to raise taxes. But if this is what it’s going to take, we need to do it.”

L.A. Jews are stewards of enough power and money to make a difference in this effort, and it would be inhumane for our community not to rally behind these two men. At great political cost, Mayor James Hahn has brought on a police chief who has a plan and a track record.

Baca has also proven he has ability to take bold steps, to approach gang suppression not solely as an issue of incarceration, but as a social cancer. In the past, we could finger-point at our leadership. Now we need to look in the mirror.

Last year, 436 Israelis were brutally murdered in terror attacks. The tragedy has devastated a country of 6 million, and the Jewish community here has responded with an outpouring of money and activism. Last year, 350 of our neighbors were brutally murdered in Los Angeles, a city of 3.7 million. We must muster a response at least as passionate and generous for our neighbors as we have for our brethren.

“This problem is not going to get cleaned up if those of us who live in good neighborhoods don’t stop saying, ‘It’s not my problem,'” Baca said. And he’s right.

To offer your support, e-mail Sheriff Lee Baca at .

Groopman’s World

Jerome Groopman is a nice Jewish doctor – a 6-foot-5-inch-tall professor of experimental medicine at Harvard Medical School. So how did he turn into Andre Braugher? The answer is Paul Attanasio.

For those who don’t remember, Attanasio is the brilliant creator and writer of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” the former NBC series that was always more beloved by critics and its small but fanatically devoted group of viewers than by the public at large. Among the talents spawned by that show, none made more of an impression than Andre Braugher, a Shakespearean-trained actor of enormous power who, during the show’s run, got himself a cover of TV Guide which asked the question in banner headlines: “Is this the best actor on television?”

Paul Attanasio certainly thinks so. So when he picked up a copy of The New Yorker two years ago and read an excerpt from Groopman’s book “The Measure of Our Days,” about the life-and-death struggles that come his way as a leading researcher in cancer and AIDS, he immediately wanted to turn it into a TV series. There was only one actor, he felt, who had the combination of skills the part required.

Thus, Braugher became Dr. Ben Gideon in “Gideon’s Crossing,” which debuts on ABC Tues., Oct. 10, at 10 p.m.

“The character had to be somebody who had a real toughness and command but who also had a warmth and a depth and a humanity, and those two things are very hard to find in the same human being,” says Attanasio. “And to get Andre, who captures both of those dimensions and is just a joy to write for, was really where that piece of casting came from. We’re really lucky to have him.”

Even though the casting raises the oft-asked question of why Jewish heroes have to be transmogrified into someone else before they become acceptable to the mass television audience, Groopman says he is more than happy to be represented by Braugher.

“The truth is when I saw the pilot, after the first 10 minutes his skin color was immaterial. He captured what I hoped would be captured in a serious TV representation of the kind of experiences I was writing about. It may take a different external form, but the core is still there.”

The core is the essence of Groopman’s book, which is as different from the TV medical fare we’re used to – the soap opera sagas of “ER” and “Chicago Hope” – as “Homicide: Life on the Street” was from a run-of-the-mill cop show.

First, Gideon is a physician with a strong spiritual bent who really gets involved in his patients’ lives, which gives us, the audience, the chance to do so too.

The pilot, which is so good that ABC asked Attanasio to add another half hour to it so as not to lose scenes that would have had to go to bring it in at 60 minutes, is called “Kirk.” It was the subject of the excerpt Attanasio read in the New Yorker that started the wheels turning for the series.

Played brilliantly by Bruce McGill, Kirk – an international tycoon, mega-millionaire and force of nature who is used to riding roughshod over the world and buying and bullying his way to power – is dying of kidney cancer. He is simply too much of a powerhouse to die, but if Gideon doesn’t take him on, he’s finished.

He’s a miserable human being who humiliates his wife, has alienated his children and would not be missed. Also, his case is medically hopeless. Nevertheless, Gideon decides to do battle on his behalf. The duel between the two men is positively biblical.

Attanasio says it was the kind of gargantuan tale that you don’t find any more on television, or anywhere else for that matter.

“It’s the story of a guy who has so much fight to live and of a doctor who responds to that fight by going out on the high wire and taking a chance with a novel treatment. And the guy beats an unbeatable foe, realizes how precious life is and how little in his life he has honored that idea. And now the life that he has fought so hard for is in fact meaningless.”

Groopman agrees. “The truth is, not everyone who comes into your office is necessarily likeable or soft and cuddly or someone who is sympathetic, and yet the mission is to transcend those kinds of personal reactions and really search his or her heart to know whether what you are doing is for the good,” he said. “I perceived in ‘Kirk’ a spark of life, and it wasn’t extinguished. I felt I was obliged to protect that and to try and see if it could be amplified. In some way, I agonized over it. I felt the odds were incredibly long. But I felt I couldn’t play God. I couldn’t dismiss him.” The Kirk story sets the tone for the series, as it did for Groopman’s book.

“The theme of the book is part of what sets the show apart, ” Attanasio explains, “which is that illness changes people’s lives. Sometimes it enhances or deepens their lives. And doctors are privileged to participate in that event. And so it’s very different as a story-telling approach than the other medical shows. You get into really the deeper story of people’s lives.”

There are other differences as well. Groopman and Gideon preside over a teaching hospital in which the doctor as teacher is God to his residents and interns but much less omnipotent when it comes to the deathly ill patients he is trying to save.

“Even with all of the state-of-the-art technology,” Attanasio says, “medicine is still taught the way it was in ancient times – master to apprentice like the medieval guilds.”

The other aspect of the story which is news is that Groopman practices cutting-edge medicine at a time when the technology is taking off. To him come the lost causes, the patients others have written off as terminal, but he practices it in the full knowledge and with a spiritual understanding that healing the body is only part of the deal.

The dilemmas are as much moral as they are medical. The dialogue is Talmudic. Gideon may be African American but his world view, which is Groopman’s, is Jewish to the core.

“My book was very much a spiritual exploration of illness,” Groopman says. “I think it’s important that people not be afraid of that spiritual dimension. It’s such an essential element of the experience. But typically a Harvard professor and high-tech doctor doing experimental medicine – what’s he doing talking about spirituality? He’s supposed to be talking about DNA and proteins and computers and all that. But I see a thirst for it among my colleagues even though physicians are being beaten to a pulp like everyone else in the medical system by HMOs and all that.”

Groopman, unlike his widower-single father TV alter ego, has a wife, who is also a physician, and three children. He is also an observant Jew whose faith infuses his work at Harvard and the books and medical articles he writes.

His book begins with a prayer from Maimonides: “Let me look at a patient neither as a rich man or a poor man, as a friend or a foe, but let me see only the person within.”

If all the stories are as well done as the pilot episode, this show will be the highlight of the new season and many to come.