I’ve spent essentially my entire life in the American Midwest, a region primarily defined as the expanse that exists between places where things actually happen. We experience the bulk of the Midwest through the windows of cars and airplanes, a blurry procession of trees and fields, with a gas station sprinkled here and there for variety. At a glance, it’s as homogenized and mellow as the milk its dairy lands produce.
I didn’t experience any sort of culture shock when my Minnesota-based family vacationed in Wisconsin or drove to reunions in Iowa. Perhaps those berserkers in Wisconsin were a bit more fond of fireworks, but there simply wasn’t much of the difference to me. The differences are there, I’ve since gathered, but the Midwest is largely on the same page.
Then there’s Chicago, a place as conspicuous as the Sears Tower in the middle of endless farmland (don’t call it the Willis Tower, you’ll make them angry). Having been a pedestrian in Chicago a fair number of times, I’m convinced that Chicagoans are simply shown a screening of Death Race 2000 as part of their driver’s training.
Your best hope as a pedestrian is to travel in packs, forming a wall of humanity to dissuade even the most malevolent Mad Max-wannabes. It’s a land in which squirting a line of ketchup on a hotdog earns dirty looks and snide comments, as though you’d profaned something sacred. I’ve spent three years in the area, and I still don’t get it.
There’s something about Chicago that seems to scare the rest of the midwest, as though we’ve all read an old parchment map with the words “Here there be socioeconomic distress and systemic injustice” scrawled next to Lake Michigan. Chicago may not be the dystopian hellscape it’s often made out to be (my Mad Max comparison is admittedly a bit unfair), but its problems are apparent to anyone paying attention.
The White House recently declared Chicago’s violent crime rate an epidemic, echoing what many in the media have already said. This may be the most controversial administration since the Nixon years, but they finally almost managed to say something without provoking widespread contention (well, almost). Perhaps if the White House wishes to continue finding common ground with the media and the public, it should keep stating the obvious. Water is wet. Fire is hot. Chicago has a crime problem.
Though considerably smaller than New York and Los Angeles, Chicago somehow has more murders than both cities combined. As violent crime rates drop around the country, Chicago continues to struggle. While the past year has seen some improvement, there’s no question that Chicago’s crime problem is among the worst in the nation. Labeling it an epidemic may not change anything, but the language is nevertheless a significant facet in how we approach social problems.
Epidemic is a scary word, but it betrays a hint of hope. From the war on crime to the war on drugs, America has rarely been victorious in conflicts that don’t involve bullets. To some degree, social ills will always be with us. By calling something an epidemic, however, we recognize that it is a temporary problem that demands an immediate solution.
Historically, epidemics are things we beat. If we can figure out what conditions allowed it to spread in the first place, we can begin to remedy the situation. Every epidemic, no matter how severe, has a cure. Hope for a cure is an absolute necessity. In order to end an epidemic, we must first truly believe that it can be ended.
Contrary to what you may have been taught, discontent can be a virtue. Commenting on the 14% drop in shootings since last year, Chicago police chief Anthony Riccio said, “It’s not success — no one is celebrating that — but it is a step in the right direction.” It’s good to be pleased with the progress, but not too pleased.
Progress should energize us to keep pushing forward, not pacify or appease us. Humans are a bunch of starry-eyed malcontents, never quite satisfied with the state of the world. This discontentedness has been the driving force behind progress throughout history and is crucial in remedying the epidemics we face today. The moment we say “good enough,” we lose momentum.
Chicago has long been a hotbed of violent crime, but there’s no reason to shrug our shoulders and accept that as the status quo. An epidemic is an anomaly, something we should never grow accustomed to. I’ll admit that I can’t propose a solution to such a deeply entrenched problem. We often feel that we can’t really do anything about the injustice and suffering that plague the world. On a grand scale, perhaps we can’t.
It’s easy to allow dismal statistics to crush our empathy, or to turn away from suffering rather than face it. However, epidemics spread one person at a time, festering in apathy like bacteria in a petri dish. We can’t all be experts in sociology, economics, or law enforcement. However, here is one thing we can do: never stop caring.