There was a great moment in an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s liberal apologia The West Wing when presidential candidate Robert Ritchie, the dimwitted conservative foil to protagonist Josiah Bartlet, responding to a Secret Service agent’s death, mutters in a Southern drawl, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.”
“In the future,” Bartlet later tells him, “in case you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
That exchange came to mind as I was editing this week’s cover story, Derek Kinner’s compelling compilation of the stories behind Jacksonville’s first 50 homicides of 2014 . Ritchie, you see, was a vapid Dubyaesque caricature designed to incur our contempt. But as I read through the vignettes behind the city’s spiking homicide rate, tales of avarice and carelessness, of revenge and rage, of drugs and jealousy and self-defense, I was struck by how random and senseless so much of it seemed. And if it is random and senseless, if so many of these killings are the result of impulsive and ill-considered decisions, then maybe there’s not a lot we can do about it. Perhaps Robert Ritchie had a point.
Crime. Boy, I don’t know.
That’s not to say there’s nothing we can do — sensible gun regulations would be a start — or that we should hole ourselves away in a safe room with an arsenal of assault rifles. Violent crime is, and has been for many years now, on a steady decline nationwide. There are several theories out there for why this happened, why the much-feared “superpredators” of the early ’90s never materialized, why cities suddenly became safer.
The cops like to credit innovative policing strategies; politicians, tough-on-crime legislation. A better candidate is the elimination of leaded gasoline in the 1970s and ’80s, which reduced the amount of lead particulates in the air — and exposure to lead, especially for children, lowers the IQ and increases aggression.
Even beyond that, a wide swath of evidence suggests that — horrors in Syria and Iraq and Sandy Hook notwithstanding — this may be, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written, “the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” Like the loyal dogs descended from wild wolves, humans have been tamed by our own self-domestication. We are evolving to cooperate, not fight.
But clearly, we’re not there yet. Clearly, there are sections in this city, as in every city, where there are too many guns and too many drugs and too many turf wars. And clearly, we’re still not sure what to do about it.
Last month, for instance, in reaction to a wave of gun-related violence in Northwest Jacksonville, city leaders held a press conference to announce Operation Ceasefire, a campaign in which cops will knock on 18,000 doors and engage in what Sheriff John Rutherford referred to as “consensual conversations” with residents (which does not sound Orwellian at all) — all of which strikes me as more an effort to convince us they’re doing something than actually doing something. Which is understandable, because maybe there’s not much they can do.
That is, on some level, the point of Kinner’s story — not to sensationalize these killings, not to revel in the macabre, but to step back and realize that there’s no convenient narrative here that lends itself to an easy fix.
In other words: Crime. Boy, I don’t know.