Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The way to be afraid

This past weekend a young man from West Virginia was shot in the head during an armed robbery. This crime has been attracting a great deal of media attention, in part because of its random viciousness and in part because of where it happened–in Uptown, a well-gentrified neighborhood that surrounds a busy shopping and entertainment district. The man, his mother, his sister, and a friend of the family were returning to their car after a meal at a Thai restaurant when they were attacked. No one resisted, but the mugger opened fire anyway. A day later, Michael Zebuhr died from his wounds.

When such a terrible crime happens, it is easy to lose sight of how rare they are. Violent crime has been increasing throughout Minneapolis lately, but this should not be reason to panic. Yes, there are certain risks to living in an urban area, but they are commonly exaggerated by people with an axe to grind or a candidate to elect. There are risks, after all, in a lot of things. Driving a car in rush hour traffic is risky, putting new shingles on your roof if risky, going deer hunting is risky and yet people do all these things without excessive fear. Why should living in the city be any different? Most people, even those living in the urban core, have little danger of becoming a victim of violent crime. Automobile and household accidents are more likely to maim or kill us than criminals are.

Yet there is an extra dimension to crime, an element that renders the prospect of it more frightening than all the banal terrible things that happen every day. It is this resonance–stemming from the malice of others, the breakdown of social controls, etc.–that makes the subject of crime so prone to misperception and political manipulation. Crime is a broad social phenomenon, and it always fails to hew to any particular ideology or prejudice. Furthermore, crime itself and the fear of crime don’t often maintain an exact correspondence with one another. So much of the media coverage and commentary on these cruel events is geared to stoking the latter at the expense of a nuanced understanding of the former.

While a little fear may be helpful if it brings about caution, too much fear is debilitating. You won’t be a good driver if you’re always terrified of getting into an accident. By the same token, you won’t be a happy urbanite if you’re always obsessing over all the bad things remorseless others might do to you. This doesn’t mean you should go around blithely ignoring the reality of life in the city, it just means that you accept the risks and go ahead and live your life. These risks are, for most people under most circumstances, fairly negligible, so why shouldn’t the fear be also?

This isn’t just an academic issue for me. I live less than two miles from where this murder took place. On the night in question, I was walking the side streets only blocks from the scene of the crime. My neighborhood regularly posts the highest number of robberies in the entire city and my street is occasionally home to a low-level band of drug dealers. Last year, a brutal double murder happened less than a hundred yards from my back porch. I have nearly been mugged twice (once in Brooklyn, once in Minneapolis), have witnessed a foiled mugging, and have daily interactions with all manner of unstable street people. Do I want to move? Not particularly. I love my neighborhood. I’m close to everything here, my friends and my favorite places to go, and I don’t need a car to get around. Am I afraid to live where I do? Not any more than I have to be. While I may be at a higher risk of becoming a victim of violent crime than someone living in a suburb or out in the country, this risk is still quite low.

What happened to Michael Zebuhr was an atrocity. This senselessness of his end will of course inspire fear. It would be best, I think, if this fear could in turn be the impetus for support of his bereaved family and friends, assistance to the police officers charged with catching his killers, and a greater effort to ensure the safety of all the city’s residents and visitors.