The Sociology of Dead
This is our world and it feels,
increasingly, like a cul-de-sac without
By Robert Koehler
February 12, 2015 "ICH"
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
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 we 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
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 new book,
"Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (Xenos
Press) is now available. Contact him at
firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website
at commonwonders.com or listen to him at
Voices of Peace radio.