Chicago Tribune Columnist Eric Zorn and I again exchange thoughts on controversial topics.
How do we make it stop?
time a police officer is killed, a toddler playing on her porch is shot
or an honor student is beaten to death for the sin of attending the
wrong school, every paper, blog, talk show and newscast in town is
asking the same question.
The slayings of three police officers
in two months rolled out the question again. In danger of becoming known
as Baghdad on the Lake, Chicago on Monday witnessed an open gun battle
between gangs at a CTA bus turnaround, injuring nine. Community after
community pleads for help, to free them from the terrorism of gangs and
The answers tend to be formulaic, usually
reflecting one's political, religious and philosophical views. Get rid
of guns. Arm citizens for self-defense. Involve the parents. Fix the
schools. Hire more cops. Fund more "programs." Throw the bums in jail.
Bring on anger management classes and substance abuse clinics. Call up
the National Guard.
And yet, urban terrorism worsens. We've tried
gun bans, funded countless programs, thrown punks in prison. Yet, does
any Chicagoan feel safer on the street than he or she did decades ago?
Do people ever leave their doors unlocked like we did in the old
Something big has changed. Something that's more
fundamental than the proliferation of guns and the burgeoning numbers of
rampaging gangs. Something that's the "root" cause.
It's the culture. Our attitudes and beliefs that regulate our behavior. It has gone to pot.
I embrace this topic as vital and nod with approval at some of your
points, I take issue with your premise that something big has changed
and that "urban terrorism," nice phrase, has worsened.
trends are actually down in recent decades, according to the FBI index
of major crimes. There were a record 970 murders in Chicago in 1974,
compared with 458 last year. The national violent crime rate is down
about 40 percent from its peak in 1993 and declined a surprising and
encouraging 5 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to FBI data.
of violence are still far too high, I would agree with that. And every
high-profile slaying, particularly the tragic murder of police officers
we've seen lately in Chicago, reminds us of the importance of making our
society safer, perhaps bringing it in line with some of those dreaded
European social democracies where crime is way lower than it is here and
the culture has in some cases "gone to pot" by barely bothering to
enforce marijuana prohibitions.
It's a tangle of cause and effect
when you start trying to tease out of the statistics the root causes of
crime. I'll let you take the first crack at that while suggesting that,
instead of asking where we've gone wrong, we should look at the numbers
since 1993 and ask what we're doing right.
to know that things are getting better, but I don't think the mourners
at slain police Officer Michael Bailey's funeral on Friday would be
convinced by a bar chart. The FBI index of five major crimes that you
cite leaves out 191 nonindex crimes, including kidnappings, weapons
violations, prostitution and drug offenses, and the poor and minority
communities are getting hit the worst, as the Chicago Reporter described
I'll leave it to the sociologists and their
multivariate analysis to tease out the tangle of cause and effect, but
the victims of urban terrorism (Chicago Ald. Ed Burke's term) hardly see
this as an academic exercise. Not when car thieves gun down an armed,
uniformed cop in front of his own house. Not when stray bullets from the
gang wars are finding sleeping toddlers in their beds. Not when a
culture that has made America the world's largest consumer of illegal
drugs has turned parts of our cities, our southern border and Mexico
into war zones.
Four and five decades ago, things were better
than this. The difference between then and now is a deteriorating
culture. Children, for example, who are denied their childhoods by a
culture that immerses them in sex and violence. How else do you explain
the disintegration of the family and the absence of fathers that, by all
accounts, have led to the poverty, despair, incompetence and ignorance
that have fueled urban terrorism?
How did this happen? How can we fix it?
don't want to get bogged down contrasting anecdotes and impressions
with statistics. Let's agree that, whichever direction the crime arrow
is pointing these days, it ought to be pointing further downward and
that honest brokers must identify effective, realistic approaches.
I don't think censoring the Internet will work, if that's what you're implying with your culture-war salvo.
year, Psychology Today magazine took a look at the data on social
pathologies since 1990, well before the Web put pornographic and violent
entertainment a mouse click away, and concluded that "as porn viewing
has soared, rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, teen sex, teen births, divorce
and rape have all substantially declined."
The claim that
violent video games are turning kids into criminals is scientifically
shaky at best and smacks of the old comic-book scare.
But I do
think bolstering families is a good idea. We need to make marriage a
more attractive option and find some way -- Ideas anyone? -- to shrink the
alarmingly high rate of out-of-wedlock births that has contributed to
breakdowns in the social order in communities plagued by violence.
also suggest hiring more cops, yes, and putting money behind education
and job training for prisoners. Let's give violent criminals longer
sentences and monitor them more closely once they're released. And let's
devote significant public resources to early childhood education.
None of these costly investments will "fix it," unfortunately. But I'll bet they'll pay for themselves in the long run.
think more expansively. I'm not proposing censoring the Internet or
anything like it. I'm thinking about the kind of progressive cultural
change that marked the second half of the 21st century, when deeply held
attitudes about women and minorities were fundamentally changed, much
to the good.
Things weren't perfect in the 1950s and early 1960s --
stability for some was oppression for others. Yet, from those days
bloomed the civil rights movement, unprecedented creativity in the arts
and sciences and, of course, rock 'n' roll. I know that attitudes, norms
and mores -- as sociologists call them -- can change; I've seen it
But cultural change can advance society or eat away at
it. And so, the pendulum that has blessed us with so much freedom has
swung too far, creating an epidemic of radical individualism that is
critically wounding family and community. The sexual revolution, for
example, has helped weaken the importance of fatherhood, thus disabling
generations of sons. (And, no, I'm not for returning to Puritan
This transcends the fight over gun control, early
childhood education and such issues. It's as if the fight is raging down
in the valley, where we have become lost in the fog of battle. I
propose we climb the mountain where the greater problem and more
fundamental solutions reveal themselves.
The injustices of the
mid-20th century triggered today's deep cultural changes; over time, we
and our broader social institutions have internalized them. Now, we
might hope that the agonies endemic to some communities can spawn the
same kind of beneficial cultural changes. In the '50s, on the cusp of
change, it seemed impossible. But it wasn't. Calling for similar
fundamental changes might be a utopian dream, but I call it progress.
get it. You don't want to debate the crime-reduction potential of
midnight basketball and similar initiatives. Rather you want to issue a
call for "fundamental changes" that would undo the pathological side
effects of the sexual revolution and re-emphasize the values of
community and family.
Your implication, with which I agree, is
that increased sexual responsibility and strong, stable communities and
families would reduce crime.
But you'll excuse me if I'm wary of
your utopian vision. So many visions like it are Trojan horses for a
raft of socially conservative programs and legislative policies with
which I don't agree. To wit, the right has co-opted the words "family"
and "values" for use in their war against gay rights, abortion rights,
church-state separation and liberalism in general.
I get that
too. History shows you can't effect cultural change simply by thundering
at people from on high. Women's rights. Civil rights for minorities.
Rights for workers and the disabled. Environmental protection. All
required new laws and new government programs.
I listed some of
my crime-fighting ideas above. And I'd add to them the observation that
good jobs for decent pay and safe housing at affordable prices would go a
long way toward re-creating a society where it's safe to leave the
We almost certainly agree on that, yet differ on
the means to those ends. And, sadly, we're out of space today to explore
those specific differences.
Another time soon, though, I hope.
This exchange also appeared in Eric Zorn's blog, The Rhubarb Patch