America needs a war, and until Osama bin Laden shows up,
the War on Terror just isn’t gonna cut it. Drugs have won the war on
drugs, and the Cold War is so old it’s starting to defrost. The Culture
War I’d like to start is a war on gun worship.
As we prepare to celebrate the inauguration of our first
black president just days after we commemorate the birth of America’s
most prominent disciple of nonviolence, Syracuse says goodbye to one of
its most violent years on record with an onslaught of new and ever more
In a North Side park two cousins are executed in their
car. At a party on the West Side four people, three of them teens, get
shot just before dawn in the middle of an orgy of underage drinking.
And a disabled Department of Public Works employee gets murdered in his
driveway seemingly because he had the audacity to leave home for a
moment to pick up his wife at work.
This last crime is in some ways the most frightening,
because of its random nature. In spite of what you may think, it is
actually pretty hard to get yourself killed in Syracuse, especially
when the sun is out. I suppose what I am about to say may change the
statistical balance in my case, but if you follow the crime scene
carefully, you can tell.
In large part, if you are not out very late, if you are
not drinking too much, buying or selling drugs, or involved in some
criminal activity, you’re not likely to get killed by anyone except
your husband or boyfriend. That’s the sorry truth—usually it’s domestic
violence and/or drinking and drugging, and usually it happens long
after dark. Not to excuse or diminish any tragedy, but it helps calm
the fears of the vast majority of the citizenry who are law-abiding to
realize that there is a pattern to the violence.
A few years back I was at the Onondaga County Court House
waiting to be called for jury duty. They gave us a break for lunch. I
headed out to find a sandwich, and the woman who had been seated next
to me asked where I was going. I told her I was just going to walk
around and look for something to eat. It was a nice day. She looked at
me with eyes glazed with fear and asked if I could bring back something
for her. I invited her along and she started to shake her head as if I
were asking her to move to Gaza.
She lived in one of the northern suburbs, was completely
unfamiliar with the city, and had developed her concept of our town as
just a place where you could get shot. I got a couple of hot dogs from
the guy in Columbus Circle, walked over and ordered her a tuna fish
from Subway, all the while feeling pity for her.
But you know those fears are real, and there are a lot of
people out there like her. Racial stereotyping plays a part, media hype
plays a part, but the end result is that lots of people don’t come to
the city when they hear scary crime stories. They may say, “Oh, the
parking is tough,” but what they really mean is, “I don’t want to have
to drive around the block three times to find a place to park my car
and get shot.”
By the way, I didn’t get picked for jury duty. Go figure.
Now back to the Culture War. It’s not about gun control;
it’s about the culture of gun worship. (Hunters of non-humans, fear
not. I am not speaking about you.) Gun control legislation has serious
limits. The best we can hope for, even in the age of Barack Obama, is a
ban on the AY KM class of weapons, AYKM, as in “Are You Kidding Me?”
Those are the automatic and semiautomatic weapons which most of the
citizenry and all the cops want to see outlawed, but which the National
Rifle Association likens to mother’s milk. Hopefully their sale will
soon be illegal, and shipping them across state lines will be illegal,
but that won’t stop people from shooting people in Syracuse, in
Detroit, San Francisco or anywhere else.
The causes of gun violence are not the topic today. Our
community is blessed with excellent people—Mark Muhammad, Bill Lott,
Julius Edwards, Sally Berry, Frank Fowler, Helen Hudson, to name a
few—who have dedicated themselves to stopping the killing. Countless
teachers and coaches in our schools set an example and provide guidance
every day (with the exception of snow days) to boys who get mixed
messages from the street about which road leads to success.
These leaders form the front line in this war. What I’m
saying is that we should all have their back. We should all enlist in a
massive Culture War taking on the urban gun culture. Do what you can.
Take every opportunity to advance the notion that
carrying a gun in an urban area is for fools. (Yes, Plaxico Burress, I
mean you.) Seize any opportunity to remind people who say they carry a
gun to protect themselves that the person he is most likely to shoot is
himself. (Have I made my point, Plaxico?) In this war, we can all act
like dangerous subversives, eroding every chance we get the idea that a
man with a gun is somehow brave and bold. (Plaxico, are you paying
We should instead remind folks that bravery lies in the
ability to defend oneself with ideas and example, and that settling
disputes with violence is an admission of failure. That is a tribute to
the nature of a city, which is based, first and foremost, on a cease
fire in which we surrender our arms and rely on one another. To do that
requires real bravery, real strength and a good dose of faith. Without
it, we retreat slowly into our houses, losing some part of ourselves to
the fearful sounds of night.