Sunday, May 13, 2012

What is your problem?

In the safe suburban area where I live, the prevailing response to the daily news of shootings that occur in the inner city seems to be, “It's not our problem.” Analyses by social scientists tend to support this view. The shootings take place mostly in poor areas among minority populations where employment and opportunity are scarce.

The problem of urban violence is geographically contained. It is almost entirely perpetrated by members of the lower-income communities against other people from the same communities. It may seem baffling that people would be killing their neighbors, but so long as the killing does not spread into the suburbs, people around here take comfort. They view it the same as they view our foreign wars. We are not threatened. “So what if they kill each other?” pretty much sums up the way people outside the zone of violence view what is going on inside. It is not our problem. Or we ask dismissively, “What is their problem?” implying that the cause of the violence is a poor attitude and not a paucity of resources.

What surprises many people, though, is that while the ghetto dwellers are killing each other, the affluent are killing themselves. Earlier this week, a man shot his wife and then himself in the wealthy town of Barrington Hills. The news photo showed a police car parked outside the wrought-iron gates of the couple's estate which was so large that the home was not even visible in the distance, behind the big trees.

Within the past couple of months, at least three Lake Forest high school students have killed themselves. A couple of months ago, a Northbrook man shot himself in his home. A short time earlier, a man shot himself in a parking lot in downtown Deerfield. There are plenty more cases like these in all the wealthy suburbs.

Suburbanites with money, privilege, and everything that goes with it, living in isolated safety in their economically segregated towns, are killing themselves just the same as their urban counterparts are killing each other.

The ghetto dwellers may well be puzzled that life in wealthy Lake Forest and these other towns could be so miserable that people would kill themselves, just as suburbanites have trouble understanding why people in the ghettos, who have so little, would make things even worse for themselves by polluting their communities with violence. I can imagine people who have so little asking rhetorically about the rich, “What is those people's problem?”

While the external conditions leading to the suburban suicides and urban homicides are obviously different, one thing the victims have in common is an inner feeling of hopelessness and a violent response. It unites rich and poor. It reaches people regardless of where they live. In a strange way, it reveals to us the commonality of our experience as people, despite all our attempts to deny that bond.

People on both sides of the economic divide can dismiss each other's problems as not their problems. But if we pay attention, the universality of violence could start to change the way we look at one another. Instead of disregarding other people's misery by saying, “It's not our problem,” and asking, “What is their problem?” we could start asking ourselves, “What is our problem?” Maybe wealthy suburbanites would start to see that ghetto violence, even if it stays confined within the ghetto, is their problem after all.

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