THE BLOG

The Sociology of Dead Children

02/12/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Experts have put urban violence under the microscope. You might call it the sociology of dead kids.

There's a lot less here than meets the eye, or so it seemed when I read about a new study by researchers at Yale called "Tragic, but not random: The social contagion of nonfatal gunshot injuries." It's an attempt to create categories of likely future shooting victims in Chicago and thus determine who among us is most in danger. Well, sure, why not? But in the process the study, at least as it was reported a few days ago in the Chicago Sun-Times, utterly depersonalized the potential victims, along with the communities in which they lived, reducing them to components in a mathematical formula.

The researchers "sought to go beyond a racial explanation for nonfatal shootings," according to the Sun-Times. "They were trying to explain why a specific young African-American male in a high-crime neighborhood becomes a shooting victim, while another young black man in the same neighborhood doesn't, the study said."

It was all so cold and "scientific," so grandly removed from the hoo-hah of growing up in the big city -- of life, death, guns, gangs, poverty and the criminal justice system. As we go about the business of trying to create meaningful lives, it turns out that disinterested mega-forces, as impersonal as gravity, are colluding to determine our fate. Don't worry. Scientists are studying these forces. They'll get them figured out. Meanwhile, go shopping. Or whatever.

Yeah, that was it. What ground against my sensibilities wasn't the science itself but its transmutation, via the clueless media, into popular culture. The omnipresent assumption of the mainstream media is that you and I are "consumers" -- consumers, ultimately, of reality itself -- and live in our culture and our world as spectators rather than participants. This means the reality that's conveyed to us is simplistic and gawk-worthy rather than complex, multidimensional and evolving. Such news promotes and prolongs the status quo, including the troubles embedded therein, even when it purports to report on solutions to these troubles.

As Einstein said: "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them."

These words silently reverberated as I read on, about the sociology of taking a bullet in your chest: "If you and another person get arrested together in Chicago, you're both part of a loose network of people with a high risk of getting shot in the future. . .

"Only 6 percent of the people in Chicago between 2006 and 2012 were listed on arrest reports as co-offenders in crimes, the study says. But those people became the victims of 70 percent of the nonfatal shootings in the city over the same period."

OK. Guys who get arrested with other guys get shot more often than soccer moms and hedge fund managers (at least those with clean arrest records).

In two struggling Chicago neighborhoods, West Garfield and North Lawndale, "about 70 percent of the killings occurred in . . . a social network of only about 1,600 people -- out of a population of about 80,000 in those neighborhoods," the story informed us. "Inside that social network, the risk of being killed was 30 out of 1,000. For the others in those neighborhoods, the risk of getting murdered was less than one in 1,000."

Enter the Chicago Police Department, which, in accordance with the study, has come up with a list of names of people with a high likelihood of getting shot. And: "We're keeping track of them," a department spokesman said. "Arming our officers with more intelligence has helped us drive down crime."

I guess what I felt as I read this was the ache of same old, same old. An impersonal study postulates an impersonal way of looking at the shooting deaths of young male Chicagoans (of color, of course); and a large, impersonal governing force, the Police Department, "armed" with impersonal data, watches and manipulates human beings from a distance in the name of crime prevention. And the consumers of spectator culture, the American public, read about it and move on, slightly reassured, perhaps, that the experts are handling these matters.

This is our world, and it feels, increasingly, like a cul-de-sac without empathy. Shortly after I read about the sociology of dead children, I read about the death of 13-year-old Mohammed Tuaiman, who lived in Yemen. The boy was killed by a U.S. drone attack at the end of January. His death had news value because, a few weeks earlier, he had spoken to Western journalists, according to a story at Common Dreams, "about his pervasive fear of the U.S. drones flying overhead. . . .

"Mohammed's father and one of his brothers were killed by a U.S. drone in 2011, which sparked the young boy's fear of what he called the U.S. 'death machines.' Subsequently interviewed by the Guardian, and given a camera in order to document his life in war-torn Yemen, Mohammed spoke earnestly and openly about the dangers and fears that plagued his life."

The connection between the two stories is intuitive, but not random. The level of thinking in each is the same: impersonal control, maintenance of security from a distance. How long before the "manpower-strapped" Chicago Police Department begins employing drone technology to keep its eye on the city's scientifically determined at-risk young people?

Missing from the Sun-Times story was any mention of community, at least as something organic and protective. Also missing were words such as valuing, listening, respecting -- without which, my God, security for anyone is a travesty. Missing also was any mention of militarized police or our national obsession with war. These are the forces of dehumanization and they put all of us at risk.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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