It was late at night and I was supposed to be asleep. Instead I’d lie awake in the darkness, listening to Mama muttering softly to herself out in the living room.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my goodness.”
She was hand-to-mouth shocked over the crimes being reported by the man on the late news. And I’d lie there wondering why. As in, why did it bother her so? Why was she surprised when these were the same crimes the same man had reported the night before?
One of my colleagues asked essentially the same question the other day. Why, this young reporter wanted to know, does The Herald keep making such a fuss about the shooting deaths of children when “it seems like this happens every day here in America”?
The question stopped me.
I don’t bring it up here to put a colleague on the spot. I just want to talk about what happens when the awful becomes the ordinary.
Actually you can already see the answer. Not just in the way children’s deaths have become common, but also in the numbness we all feel when faced with that fact. We’ve perfected a protective detachment that allows us to accept barbarous news and then move, unfazed, to the sports page.
No one is hand-to-mouth shocked anymore. No one makes a fuss. Maybe that’s what’s wrong.
I’m reminded of the “Broken Windows” theory advanced by criminologists James Wilson and George Kelling. They argued that minor infractions left unattended - a broken window in an abandoned factory, for instance - set the stage for more serious transgressions. The idea is that in places where it’s perceived that no one cares, criminals are emboldened, crime more brazen. But where people are willing to make a fuss, even about the small things, there is relative order.
That lesson was incorporated into a strategy New York City Police have employed with stunning success in recent years. The NYPD blues achieved historic drops in major crimes in part by concentrating on minor ones - aggressive panhandling, graffiti, public urination and other quality-of-life offenses that had contributed to the perception of a breakdown of order.
It seems simple and self-evident when you think about it: Public outrage is our surest defense against offense. So you have to wonder, whatever became of outrage? Of hand-to-mouth shock? Whatever happened to making a fuss?
Some would say they were a casualty of fear so prevalent we don’t even notice it anymore, but I think those people have it backward. Before the fear came the anonymity of the cities, the sense that we owe no fealty to the greater good, owe no obligation to our communities, owe nothing to anyone because our highest calling is to mind our own business.
Remember Kitty Genovese? She was stabbed to death one night and died screaming as 37 of her neighbors watched and listened and did nothing. This was 1964. Back when worship houses were fuller, media tamer, life simpler and cities safer so that a woman could think nothing of walking the streets alone after dark. Back before the fear.
Her death seems in retrospect the first day of the new age, the beginning of the end of hand-to-mouth shock. Indeed, the very idea seems quaint now, an antique relic from before the cities swallowed us all.
Why make a fuss? my colleague asks.
Call it a leftover reflex.
Or the rejection of an America we don’t want to be.
Because if the awful has become the ordinary, we must remember that it happened in increments, not all at once. It happened when we accepted graffiti on our walls, broken bottles in our streets, trash in our schoolyards. Happened when we stopped talking to strangers, stopped going out, ceded whole city blocks to lowlifes and punks.
Each time, the line in the sand moved farther in. Each time it became easier to yield. The surrenders were getting bigger, but we didn’t notice.
So that now it has come to this, to the very knife’s edge of crisis. And decision.
Our children are dying.
We cannot accept this.
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