After news broke that a 15 year old Chicago girl who attended President Obama’s inauguration was shot dead by a gang which opened fire on a group she was with the problem was immediate: who to blame. “Outrage” spread with alarming speed “from City Hall to the White House, the 15-year-old became a symbol Wednesday of escalating violence in Chicago while fueling the national debate over guns and crime.”
Symbols are often vague. And Chicago has had a wide choice of symbols of late. The Hadiya Pendleton tragedy was very similar in its essentials to the death of Heaven Sutton, a 7 year old “shot dead while selling candy and lemonade at a stand outside her Chicago home … caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute”. Sutton — and now Pendleton — was a symbol of what exactly?
As expected, even before the victim was in the grave the struggle to cast her death into a narrative had already begun.
Hadiya’s slaying also came up in an interview Obama did with Telemundo. The president was asked whether the example of Chicago, with strict gun control laws, gave credence to the National Rifle Association’s position that more gun laws don’t necessary mean less gun violence.
“Well, the problem is that a huge proportion of those guns come in from outside Chicago,” Obama said. The president said it was true that creating a “bunch of pockets of gun laws” without a unified, integrated system of background checks makes it harder for a single community to protect itself from gun violence.
Set against the backdrop of the record breaking homicide rate in Chicago and the Sandy Hook massacre, Hadiya’s death was to put it cruelly tailored made for talking points. Talking heads are almost certainly going to hold forth on whatever abstract thing they think caused her death.
The list is a long one. The Second Amendment? The lack of national gun control? Perhaps the failure of the Blue Model? The heartlessness of the Red Model? The projects? A former CEO of Playboy even argued Climate Change was to blame. Heck, why not?
But if the past is any guide then after the hue and cry of Hadiya dies down and the smoke clears only the victims will have definite names.
Actual things you can actually jail are likely to be scarce. In the end the causes of the Pendleton’s death and the hundreds like her in Chicago will remain as abstract as a Picasso. The reason the objects of outrage are buildings like City Hall or the White House is simple: its safe to blame a structure but nobody wants to take the risk of naming a persons inside them.
That’s because people inside the building can reach out and punish you. Cancel your permit, forget to send the police around when things get tough. So as it was in the beginning and ever shall be: it will boil down to “the system did it”.
As to the nameplates outside the offices inside those systems, none of them will change. Rahm Emmanuel will remain Mayor of Chicago as all the aldermen will. Nobody in Washington is going to be replaced. But the system will be changed. Some new piece of paper will be required. Some new restriction enacted. And everyone charge with enforcing these new systems will be exactly the same. Only Hadiya Pendleton will change, from living to dead.
One of the the things that Saul Alinsky taught his disciples is that if you seriously wanted to attack a problem you named the man causing it. City Hall never hurt nobody, Alinsky argued, because it’s made of concrete and doesn’t walk around. But the reverse of Alinsky’s rule also holds true: that if you don’t want to solve a problem — or only blow smoke — then don’t name a person as the problem. Hold forth instead on such lofty subjects as poverty, racism, the gun culture or my personal favorite, “violence”. Just so long as The System Did It. Cause the system pays and besides the academics will believe it and there the matter ends.
In the end the dead kids in Sandy Hook, like Sutton or Pendleton become grist for the policy mill. Their ultimate usefulness is as fuel for some narrative. The words change. But the human infrastructure of corruption, the web of spiders who enable the gangs of Chicago and elsewhere will never change.
Which is a pity. The late Ed Wood may have made stupid movies, but he also wrote a line of dialog whose point should be recalled. “But one thing’s sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” How quaint. Today we are so much more clever. Hadiya Pendlton is dead, and no one — at least nobody who matters — is responsible.
The belief in the need to fix the rules and not the people in the building, the belief that the Age of Aquarius would make human responsibility, personal or otherwise, unnecessary was perhaps the greatest conceit of the 20th century. It was the age when everything was explained and could be fixed by reference to social causes. Individual will played no part in it. It was as mechanical as a merry-go-round. Clever people would say to each other “don’t give to beggars, you’ll delay the Revolution” when they really wanted to say was the money was better spent on dope. But not everyone was fooled. The same guys who minted the phrase the Age of Aquarius also wrote about the dodge of blaming systems:
How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no
And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend
And would that be a Facebook friend or a Twitter friend? Oh a human friend. Well if you really need that kind of friend, buddy, then better buy a dog.
Update: I closed this thread because it was tending toward a subject we can’t look at head on: race. Race is a subject which might not be rationally debatable because it goes to some primordial programming in human beings. And if that’s the case then it operates according to some other calculus, along with such things as sex or deeply held belief. A friend wrote to me “millions of Americans have refused to face this issue head-on; which is one of the reasons, we end up with Chicago. Everyone looks the other way.”
Well not everyone. For there’s a great deal of power in using the subject of race to political advantage such that the strongest argument for talking about race, however irrationally, is that you can try to do better than the hustlers. But maybe the rules in that polemical universe are different and there’s really no rational calculus in it just an emotional one.
There are limits to reason; or rather there are limits to what can reasonably be discussed. Objects outside the realm of reason can exist but we must find some other road to them than words.