Tuesday, August 14, 2007

100,000 Gone Since 2001


Published: August 14, 2007

On Saturday in Newark, three young friends whose lives and dreams vanished in a nightmarish eruption of gunfire in a rundown schoolyard were buried.

On Sunday in a small town in Missouri, a pastor and two worshipers were murdered by a gunman who opened fire in a church.

Murder, that darkest of American pastimes, celebrated in film and song and fostered by the firearms industry and its apologists, continues unabated.

It has been almost six years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation’s consciousness of terror was yanked to new heights. In those six years, nearly 100,000 people — an incredible number — have been murdered in the United States.

No heightening of consciousness has accompanied this slaughter, which had nothing to do with terrorism. The news media and most politicians have hardly bothered to notice.

At the same time that we’re diligently confiscating water and toothpaste from air travelers, we’re handing over guns and bullets by the trainload to yahoos bent on blowing others into eternity in armed robberies, drug-dealing, gang violence, domestic assaults and other criminal acts.

Among those who have noticed the carnage are the nation’s police chiefs, and they are alarmed. Surges of homicides and other violent crimes in many cities and towns over the past couple of years have prompted Bill Bratton, the police chief in Los Angeles, to warn of the possibility of a “gathering storm” of criminal violence in the U.S.

“Philadelphia and Baltimore are having horrendous problems,” he said in an interview. “You just had that awful shooting in Newark. What we’d like to do is bring this issue of crime back into the national debate in this election year. What you don’t want is to let it get out of control like it did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

Mr. Bratton is a past president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group based in Washington that is composed of the heads of some of the largest state, county and local law enforcement agencies in the country. The group’s report on crime trends in 2005 and 2006 tracked disturbing increases in robberies, aggravated assaults and murder.

The report described violent crime as “making a comeback,” not to the same degree as the crack-propelled violence of the late-’80s and early-’90s, but in frightening numbers, nevertheless.

Chuck Wexler, the forum’s executive director, offered a particularly chilling statistic. The number of cases of aggravated assault with a firearm is about 100,000 a year. In some cases, the gunman misses, but each year roughly 60,000 people are actually shot.

“Over the past five years,” said Mr. Wexler, “more than half a million people have been the victim of an aggravated assault with a firearm. We have become numbed in this society.”

Law enforcement officials believe there is something more vicious and cold-blooded, and thus more deadly, about the latest waves of crime moving across the country. Robberies involving juveniles with little regard for the lives of their victims are becoming more prevalent. Individuals with cellphones, iPods and other electronic devices are particular targets.

In the forum’s report, Chief Heather Fong of the San Francisco police described a phenomenon called “rat-packing” in which robbers using cellphones call in fellow assailants to surround a victim.

Former Police Chief Nanette Hegerty of Milwaukee noted that in a number of holdups a cooperative victim was shot anyway.

Local authorities need help coping with violent crime. Huge numbers of criminals were locked up over the past 10 or 15 years, and they are leaving prison now by the hundreds of thousands each year. With few jobs or other resources available to them, a return to crime by a large portion of that population is inevitable.

The federal government played a big role in the effort that reduced crime substantially in the 1990s. But much of that federal support has since vanished, in part because of the tremendous attention and resources directed toward anti-terror initiatives, and in part because the Bush administration and much of the Republican Party have held fast to the ideological notion that crime is a local problem.

A similarly rigid ideological stance is undermining the effort to control the flow of guns and ammunition into the hands of criminals.

We have not returned to the bad old days of the late-’80s and early-’90s, but the trends are ominous. “We have to get the feds back into this game,” said Chief Bratton. “They have the resources. They can help us.”


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