Bookman: Blame murder surge on pandemic-related rage and gun sales

July 8, 2021 3:00 am

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that the country’s rising murder problem is more likely due to a pandemic-related surge in gun-buying and societal rage than because we’ve “defunded the police.” Mario Tama/Getty Images

The rising number of murders in the Atlanta metro region, some of them apparently random, has truly been alarming, and it’s important to try to grasp what its causes might be.

If the phenomenon was local, then you might suspect that the causes and solutions are local as well. But it’s not. It’s occurring all over the country, which means that “solutions” such as carving out a new city of Buckhead from Atlanta’s northern section make no sense. You can’t reduce violent crime by drawing a line on a map around your neighborhood. You can’t build a moat, and you can’t require a passport for entrance. As leverage to get police and official attention to legitimate concerns about violence, talk of creating a new city can be effective. But as a solution itself, it’s useless.

It’s also not being caused because we’ve “defunded the police,” because we haven’t defunded the police. Murder rates are rising in cities that have boosted spending on police as well as those that have not. They are rising in Republican-led cities such as Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Miami and Oklahoma City as well as in Democratic-led cities. And in most cities, crime rates are holding steady or even declining in categories other than homicide. If this was a policing problem, that wouldn’t be the case.

Another popular “solution” to the murder problem is buying a gun. If more guns made the country safer, then the pandemic-related surge in gun-buying would have brought us an era of peace and calm. Clearly, it has not.  Putting more guns in the hands of more people who are angrier, more fearful and less hopeful is a far more convincing explanation for what we’re seeing than “defund the police.”

And of course, if people are indeed angrier, more fearful and less hopeful, the pandemic has played a significant role in that trend. People lost jobs, they lost career paths, they lost opportunities and responsibilities and social outlets. Millions feel on edge, threatened and anxious, and that tension is compounded by a sense that the rules no longer apply or are enforced.

We have rage in the air, with the FAA reporting a “significantly higher” number of assaults on flight attendants. We have rage on our roads, with aggressive driving contributing to a rise in fatalities even though, until quite recently, highway traffic had fallen dramatically. We have seen rage in our nation’s Capitol, and toxic racism spews nightly from a “mainstream” TV “news” channel. Rhetoric that once would have exiled you from polite company has become the ticket to fame, fortune and influence, and the very notion of “polite company” seems quaint, as archaic as the horse and buggy.

Everyone, it seems, is somebody else’s victim.

It’s tempting to take reassurance from the thought that if all this rage and violence is pandemic-related, it may also be temporary, that as the virus comes under control we’ll return to something closer to normal. That too is probably a false comfort, in part because a good proportion of the adult population has simply refused to get inoculated, out of what can only be described as sheer cussedness. Their alienation runs so deep that they insist on exposing themselves to illness or death just to give a middle finger to the establishment that is advising them otherwise.

More importantly, the anger and bitterness that permeates American culture at the moment clearly preceded the virus. There was no virus in 2016, when we elected Donald J. Trump as president, and his four years in the White House fed a sense on both the right and left that our institutions are increasingly illegitimate and ineffective. His administration flamboyantly paid little heed to the law and none at all to political norms and traditions, and for that it has not been held accountable. It showed us all that there is no truth and there are no consequences.

But that’s not quite right, is it? The consequences may not be immediate; they may not be felt directly by the people responsible, and in fact they rarely are. But those consequences will be paid, by someone and at some time.

Like the Surfside condo board, we have been warned about the dangers, about the corrosion and the weakening of the nation’s foundation, but so far, again like the Surfside condo board, we are unwilling to pay the price to repair it.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.