Murder and the media

The title of this post suggests a more comprehensive look at the issue than I’m planning. Eventually, maybe.

Instead, for right now I’ll just grumble slightly about this post from Carol Felsenthal at Chicago Magazine. (With the stipulation that, generally, Felsenthal does interesting things when she drops by once every two months to write a blog post.)

Basically, Felsenthal says that we shouldn’t be happy that Chicago’s murder rate declined 40% over the first four months of the year from 2012 (and 7% from 2011, a more “normal” baseline), because a bunch of people got shot on Tuesday night. Which – sure, of course, that’s true, I guess, as far as it goes. And yet the fact that a lot of people got shot Tuesday night, and the fact that violence continues to be a huge problem, does not really address the fact that, were this year like last year, more people would have been shot. And fewer people shot is good.

It’s a fine line, of course, that one must walk – how to be genuinely cheered by progress when there is clearly so far to go. (And when the relatively innocuous words “so far to go” mean, more concretely, a tremendous amount of human tragedy and suffering.) But if we don’t cheer progress, how are we supposed to carry on? How do we know when we’re winning? The cynical refusal to celebrate the lives we haven’t lost because the murder rate has declined is a rejection of the value of those lives, it seems to me, just as much as apathy towards the entire situation. And if that seems like a macabre way of thinking – well, maybe it is. But we live in a sometimes macabre world.

Also, her final line – “The number [of non-fatal shootings] might shock Chicagoans into doing something—anything—to strangle the hold that street gangs have on our city and its future.” – irks me because it repeats a common idea that makes absolutely no sense, which is that somehow Chicago hasn’t been able to deal with its murder problem because Chicagoans just don’t want to enough. Otherwise, we would do “something”! Of course, Felsenthal doesn’t say what that magical something might be. That’s because she doesn’t know.

In most neighborhoods in Chicago that deal with serious violence problems, you don’t have to walk very far – often less than a block – before you see evidence that, in fact, the people of that community have been doing “something” to reduce crime. You see CeaseFire signs in a living room window and posters advertising marches against violence or after-school programs for teens in churches and libraries.

The people who are affected by this violence aren’t passive. They are, in fact, doing “something,” and almost certainly if they weren’t the problem would be worse. But there is no magic solution that would eliminate homicides, but which they – we – have not tried because we don’t care enough.

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