A family tragedy unfolds in a very public way

This much we do know: Will Smith, a young husband, the father of three and a man whose celebrity earned him a bust on the Mt. Rushmore of the Who Dat Nation, is dead at 34.

Smith’s wife Raquel is recuperating from bullet wounds to her legs. She and her children will mourn forever the seconds of uncontrolled rage that transformed an otherwise unremarkable fender bender into a death shrine draped with yellow caution tape and dotted with numbered cards in the street marking the magnitude of spent fury.
A quick disclaimer: I do not own a gun. I have shot a gun only once in my life – at a skeet shooting range.
But beyond my feelings of grief, sadness and disgust over another life cut short in what appears to have been a lethal mix of hormones and gunpowder, I am left with one sobering thought as I drive to work every day: How many people whizzing past me and weaving in and out of traffic have guns in their cars?
If there is anything to be taken to prayerful reflection from this tragic episode – beyond our prayers for everyone involved in the shooting – it is how we respond when anger consumes every fiber of our being.
How many of us have lost our tempers behind the wheel, triggered by an outrageous driving maneuver that imperiled our lives?
A few weeks after Katrina, I watched an unbalanced driver – “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” – take the right shoulder of I-10 on the Bonnet Carré Spillway to zoom past me at 85 mph. Let’s just say I was not intoning “The Prayer of St. Francis.”
No one yet knows all the facts in Smith’s shooting death. But it does seem to be clear that a series of bad decisions on both sides, one piled on top of the other, ended in death.
It reminds me of the incremental decisions made by high school chemistry teacher Walter White in the mini-series “Breaking Bad,” who decided to use his insider’s knowledge of the periodic table to create the purest form of meth in order to sell the illicit street drug and forge a financial nest egg for his family before he died of cancer.
Those decisions, one by one, led to the death and destruction of so many.

“The majority of what we would call mortal sins or gravely wrong decisions are at the very end of a long story of small decisions that were slowly made in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Thomas J. Neal, academic dean and director of intellectual formation at Notre Dame Seminary

“It’s a complex web, like the butterfly effect. One decision can push other decisions down the road that you may not have anticipated in the beginning. There’s a fender bender. They pull over to exchange cards. Then the guy zooms away. A click goes off, and I’m going to chase him. And then the rage kicks in. Maybe it was as straightforward as a heated exchange. Something that would totally make sense.”

Except, in this case, a fender bender ends in senseless death.

“In moral theology, we always talk about the relation between the passions and reason and how the passions can easily overwhelm your ability to make logical judgments,” Neal said. “That’s road rage. It’s kind of a cliche thing, but it’s absolutely true.”

We don’t yet know who legally can be identified as the “aggressor.” The attorney of Cardell Hayes, the alleged shooter, claims the evidence will show that his client was defending himself.

Was Smith going back to his car to retrieve a gun? Who was acting in self defense? That will be for the Orleans Parish district attorney and a criminal court jury to decide.

All we know for sure is that a man everyone knew is dead.

“These very public, well-known tragedies can be opportunities to highlight the quiet victimization that goes on every day unnoticed,” Neal said. “The key is not to let it just be a blip on the radar, another news flash that passes away and we move on. Let’s go back and look at the root causes. Let’s do something about the hidden voices of victims that don’t have anyone to pay attention to them.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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