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Once, probably when I was in college or shortly thereafter, I was walking around my parents’ suburban neighborhood, the one where I grew up in Northern Virginia. I forget why. Maybe I needed some fresh air and time to think, maybe I was walking to 7-11. Maybe both.

Whatever the reason, it was summer, probably after midnight. I was about half a mile from home, strolling on the side of Sugarland Run Drive. A  Loudoun County sheriff pulled up behind me, flashed his lights and asked to see my ID. Luckily, I had my wallet, proving I lived within walking distance of the very spot where we had our little meeting.

Do you think the cop would have stopped me if I’d been driving?

Signs are rarely needed.

No, and that is the mostly unexamined aspect of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Yes, race is a factor in his death, and I do not at all mean to play it down. There already is loud debate on that (just drop by Facebook), as well as a debate over gun laws. There’s less noise about how we treat pedestrians in this country (though I did find this thoughtful piece on the subject).

It probably sounds like a joke. But I’m deadly serious. I was almost hit by a minivan the other day while jogging across a busy street IN A CROSSWALK ON A GREEN LIGHT IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. The driver glared at me as if I were in the wrong

In suburbs, gated or not, “normal” people are expected to be in cars. Oh sure, we tolerate pedestrians during the day, as long as they don’t try to cross the street when we want to hang a quick left. At night, it’s a whole different story. Anyone on foot is suspect, regardless of race. For some people, I’m sure, race only heightens suspicion that is already there.

It’s sad. But if Trayvon Martin was up to no good, why would he be walking along the road where any car could see him? The truth, obviously, is that he was just coming back from the store. But he had the double misfortune to be both black and on foot in a suburb where both were — and probably still are — out of the ordinary.

In that, the Orlando suburbs are far from alone.

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I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

This is exactly the sort of thing suburban visitors need to see when they step out of their car in a downtown area struggling to return to life:

This particular ad — spotted May 10 — came from downtown York, catty-corner from the Central Market. I had to laugh. Fear of crime, justified or not, seems to be one of the biggest obstacles to bringing people into the city. What better way to erase people’s fears than to remind them that people they see on the street could be carrying both guns AND drugs?

I love going into the city, but I don’t like explaining pictures of three-foot tall guns to my children.

On another note, I think York County commissioner and anti-crime crusader Steve Chronister could take a few notes from this article about fighting urban violence. It might work better than ads.