Last week, two people were shot at a corner store a block from my house. Some have called the store a “hot spot” for crime. At this point, no one knows who the shooters were. There are also lots of children in my neighborhood. They aren’t my children, but I know their faces and their names. I know where many of them go to school and what grade they’re in. I know which houses they go home to. I know many of them like to come up and pet my dog on our frequent walks through my neighborhood. I know many of them practice sports in our local park and wave at me when I pass by.
If even one of those kids feels scared to go out and play next week, we should all hang our heads in shame. If even one of them, God forbid, saw or heard last week’s shooting and develops anxiety that disrupts sleep, appetite, or study, we should be outraged. If even one of my young neighbors’ mothers has to go to work late because her child is afraid to stand at the school bus stop, this is something we simply must not tolerate.
Some will say these children are just the next generation of thugs in waiting. A few may make it and move on to a future that is bright, happy and safe. But for too many others, everything else will fail them. Then they’ll be the shooters rather than the bystanders. According to this logic, last week’s shooting is just one more episode getting them accustomed to the tough, dysfunctional existence they’ll have to eke out in this city for the remainder of their adult lives.
I could not disagree more with this line of thinking. I’m willing to bet that last week’s shooters were once sweet neighborhood kids too. I bet they were failed by too many people and too many institutions. I’m willing to bet that they were exposed to violence young, maybe through direct personal experience. I bet they grew familiar with an easy tolerance for petty crime in the brutal face of the “legitimate” economy.
The progression from the sweet neighborhood kids I see everyday to those who did the shooting last week may seem predetermined to some, but I believe that all of us have an obligation to put ourselves directly on the line to interrupt this progression. If I don’t, and if one of my young neighborhood friends is at the wheel in a driveby shooting in ten years, I will have myself to blame. Each one of us must be willing to do whatever we can to preserve possibility for the children in our community.
I have seen the yard signs bearing the message “Thou shalt not kill. –God,” which are part of an anti-violent crime campaign by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. I have nothing against them. The message is obviously a good one, if a bit blunt. But I do not believe sprinkling a few yard signs in fenced uptown yards and manicured campus quads will accomplish much in the struggle to reduce the intolerable level of violent crime in our community.
The Catholic tradition sees peace and justice as a linked pair. Injustice causes many symptoms, including violence. Peace on our streets and peace in our community will mean seeking out the causes of injustice, pulling them up by the roots, and applying the strongest root-killers we can. Repeatedly.
Not surpisingly, the strongest root-killers are relational, institutional, and systematic. So in addition to putting up a yard sign, I challenge anyone who wants to reduce the level of violent crime in New Orleans to actively pursue the following goals:
- Do what you can to make sure children in your community are surrounded by people who regularly ask about their well-being and care enough to take concrete actions to bring it about. Surround the children in your community with kindness. Demonstrate habits of perseverence, consideration, and broad-mindedness.
- Do what you can to make our institutions worthy of our children. This includes all institutions — health care, law enforcement, government — but most especially schools. Unfortunately many schools in Louisiana are still an insult to the dignity and worth of the children who attend them.
- Do what you can to make sure that kids, when they grow into adults, are welcomed by a system that has been cured of its rotten nepotism, its incompetence, its fraud, its corruption, and its inordinate love of self-gratification at others’ expense. With your actions and choices, commit to making the system what it should be: a humane, mature network of grownups cooperating to effectively realize the common good.