The recent horrific episodes of murder and violence that have struck the western world have clearly sent shockwaves through the body politic. Whether it’s in the United States, France or any number of other nations, millions of people are rightfully horrified at the senseless killing and understandably fearful that they or someone they love might somehow fall victim – be it to a law enforcement officer with a racial or ethnic bias or a suicidal killer with a twisted worldview. Add in the festering divisions of race, religion and politics that afflict our society these days (and that the killings have helped accentuate) and it’s no surprise that so many people feel a profound sense of anger and sadness and a deep desire for normalcy and “safety.”
Given this backdrop, it’s also no surprise that elected leaders and politicians have been seeking to address the matter – some helpfully and some not so much. Lately, speaking at tragedies and comforting victims seems to be the main vehicle by which President Obama addresses the nation. In Congress, the mostly powerless Democrats got more publicity for their recent effort to force votes on the passage of gun safety legislation than just about anything else they’ve done in months. Meanwhile, politicians of both parties have been rattling sabers in an effort to appear tough vis-a-vis perceived threats – both real and imagined, foreign and domestic.
And yesterday, one of the nation’s two major political parties even went so far as to make “safety” its theme for the first day of its political convention. Last night, an array of speakers, including reality TV show personality William Robertson of the “Duck Dynasty” show and former “Happy Days” co-star Scott Baio, explained to millions of Americans why they will be “safer” with more powerful weapons deployed and brandished at home and abroad along with immigration policies that exclude and target certain ethnic and religious groups for harsher treatment.
Safety in the real world
Of course, it’s one thing to bluster and offer up promises about “safety.” It’s quite another to enact and implement public policies that actually make it a reality for millions of people. Tempting as it may be to utter grand ideological pronouncements, threats and pledges, to spread fear about supposed conspiracies or even to encourage a kind of vigilantism, the real work of promoting and enhancing public safety and wellbeing involves the painstaking work of making government do its job more effectively and efficiently and of doing our best as a society to address and ameliorate human conflicts.
Consider the following fields in which we see this hard truth at work and the disastrous impacts of ignoring it:
The justice system – Here in North Carolina in recent years, state leaders have talked tough about crime and punishment incessantly, but when it comes to implementing real world policies that actually advance public safety, they are often missing in action. This can be seen in a raft of decisions impacting crime prevention, corrections and the courts that have too often allocated inadequate resources and kept pubic employees underpaid and overworked. As criminal justice experts at the Carolina Justice Policy Center  have documented at length, state lawmakers have repeatedly put ideologically-driven tax breaks ahead of simple, straightforward and successful programs that could, for instance, ease probation caseloads or aid ex-offenders in reentering society. As the Center noted in its most recent newsletter:
“Short session budget decisions were dominated by salary decisions and how to allocate increases – either across the board or in bonuses and targeted increases. Beyond that, little was allocated in increases to services that have been deeply cut since the economic downturn.
Overall, leaders continued to limit spending and reduce taxes in spite of the fact that additional funds were available and multiple tax reductions have been implemented in recent years. Billions of dollars have now been removed from the state’s revenue which are needed to provide desperately needed services as well as modest salary increases to state employees.”
These funding shortfalls have negatively impacted everything from crime labs to prison staffing to the salaries of state troopers and other first responders. Even the courts themselves, remain chronically under-resourced. As N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sharon McCloskey noted earlier this year :
“The [North Carolina] court system continues to juggle a three-million case annual docket with diminished resources, a function of both budgetary realities during the recession years and lingering legislative misconceptions about the role of the courts in state government.”
Immigrants – Few areas generate more heat and less light when it comes to discussions of public safety than the government’s treatment of undocumented immigrants. Conservative fire breathers continually blame immigrants for a vast swath of our nation’s ills and promote policies that would mandate arrest and deportation and deprive immigrants of essentially all civil rights. But as calmer and more knowledgeable experts have explained time and again, such policies only endanger public safety by driving immigrants into the shadows where they are much more likely to be victims of crime themselves and fall prey to the entreaties of gangs and other segments of the underground economy.
A classic practical example in this area is the driver’s license debate – where the stubborn failure to provide undocumented immigrants with an ability to drive legally, with proper training, liability insurance and awareness of local safety laws, spurs huge public safety problems.
Public health – And how can one purport to talk seriously about “safety” without discussing public health? Here in North Carolina, a thousand people or more will die unnecessarily this year for the fourth straight year because of the state’s failure to expand Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. That’s roughly 20 times the number of people killed in the monstrous Orlando night club shooting of last month. Add to this the state’s systematic underinvestment in unglamorous things like school nurses and combating infectious disease and air and water pollution and the safety deficit grows even larger.
Gun violence – And then, of course, there’s the issue of gun violence itself, where the NRA’s outrageous stranglehold on sane policies directly abets the senseless vulnerability that millions of us experience on a daily basis. As Becky Ceartas, Executive Director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence observed yesterday  in response to this past weekend’s tragedy in Baton Rouge:
“North Carolinians Against Gun Violence condemns this latest shooting in the strongest terms possible. While the motivations of the gunman are still unknown, one thing is clear: this unspeakable violence is fueled by a culture in which guns are easy to obtain and the taking of human life has become a normalized solution to conflict. We stand with the family members and colleagues of the slain officers, and with those who were wounded and survived.”
None of this, of course, is to say that the threats to safety posed by terrorists, religious fanatics, rogue cops or deranged individuals driven by racial hatred aren’t real or don’t deserve significant attention. Our nation – indeed our planet – is desperately in need of sustained attention to the underlying causes of these problems (things like poverty, ignorance, wealth maldistribution, racism, zealotry and environmental stress). As the old saying goes, “if you want peace, work for justice.”
It is to say, however, that it is foolish and absurdly myopic to think that we can address the violence that plagues the modern world by ignoring the other myriad threats to health and safety or by arming ourselves and our children with even more dangerous killing machines and/or building ever larger and more numerous walls to keep people apart.