Frank James allegedly shot ten people on a New York City subway car this week. The ensuing panic caused serious injuries to an additional 19 people. Mr. James escaped from the scene by taking advantage of the chaos he incited by the shooting and the discharge of two smoke bomb cannisters. In his haste, he left behind a variety of materials that helped identify him. He also left behind a semiautomatic pistol that had jammed after firing 33 bullets and the keys to the van he rented in Philadelphia for the drive to New York City.
With his picture on every news channel and his access to his motor vehicle compromised, he decided to call the NYC tipline and await the arrival of the police. In compliance with the protocols established several decades ago, our politicians stepped up to banks of microphones and announced that this carnage had to stop. They assured the listeners who might be inclined to vote in a future election that their “thoughts and prayers went out to the victims of this senseless crime and to their family members.” Our politicians assured us that they would do everything possible to keep this from happening again.
It was all too familiar. The news cameras get packed away, and we are left watching “Jeopardy” and wondering how we can get to work or to home without being shot at, pushed onto subway tracks, run over by speeding cars, or struck by debris from the facades of crumbling buildings or from construction sites harboring new buildings that rise to infinity and beyond on a piece of land not much bigger than a three car garage.
No sooner was Mr. James apprehended and subjected to the obligatory ‘perp’ [perpetrator] walk than the media alerted us to the shooting of an unarmed African-American man who had been stopped for an alleged traffic violation. Patrick Lyoya was shot in the head while apparently failing to cooperate with a police officer. No announcement has yet to emerge explaining why deadly force was necessary in this encounter. We have come to expect this type of explanation whenever an unarmed person is killed by the police or a ‘neighborhood watch’ guard [see Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo, etc., etc.]. After all, we feel entitled to some sort of explanation when the allegedly ‘good guys’ with the guns kill our neighbors. These explanations may seem improbable to some of us, as was the defense of George Zimmerman after his murder of a teenager out buying candy. Remember, Zimmerman feared for his life because this teenager might have banged his head on the sidewalk that was nearby. Zimmerman was acquitted and Martin was buried, as has often been the case for killings involving white ‘peace officers’ and black citizens.
The impression we get from all of these shootings and slightly less deadly assaults is that our society is becoming more violent and irrational each week. Whereas we learned about mass shootings by the depraved or unwarranted killings by the police once or twice a year three or four decades ago, we are now being advised of such unsavory activities on an almost daily basis. Part of that explosion of terrifying news can be attributed to a concerted effort by the news media to wake us from our stupor. Bad news is like a narcotic: the more we get over time, the less of a reaction it elicits. We have become desensitized to terrible events. The popularity of horror movies [remember Jaws] reflects our insatiable need for shock and awe to hold our attention. If the news documented little more than the unimaginable scientific advances of the past two decades, who would tune in to learn about these amazing achievements and to learn about the latest weight loss diet or age-reversing cream that the commercials so generously advise us of?
The safety and rights of many individuals in our society are being compromised every day, but that this is a growing problem is an illusion. The human rights violations visited upon our fellow citizens extend back beyond the founding of our republic. The enormity of crimes against the Chinese in the West and the African-Americans in the South are legendary. The wholesale genocide of Native Americans by our government and its agents is incomprehensible.
The suppression, intimidation, and denial of human rights of African-Americans did not end with the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment [the one that banned slavery]. We forget the thousands of unrecorded lynchings, beatings, and shootings of AfricanAmericans that were simply not considered newsworthy until a few decades ago. America is not getting more violent: it is getting more transparent.
Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were civil rights workers beaten and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Meridian, Mississippi, in 1964. Their capture by Klan members was assisted by local law enforcement officials. As the FBI searched for the bodies of these three men, they came across the bodies of two AfricanAmerican men who had apparently been murdered as well. The discovery of these additional murder victims elicited no shock or surprise in the investigators since the abductions and murders of African-Americans in that part of our country was commonplace.
The good guys with guns have probably not killed as many people in recent years as have the bad guys with guns, but they are still exacting an unacceptable toll. What is clear from recent events is that if a police officer shoots and kills an African-American who is unarmed, he may need to look for another job, but he is not likely to be deemed guilty of murder. We can only hope that in the near future we shall no longer hear that our unarmed neighbor was killed because he ran when a police officer told him to stand still or because a neighborhood watchmen worried about the dangers of a nearby sidewalk. With increasing awareness of the violence that has been an integral part of America since its founding, we have reason to hope for a safer nation for all its citizens. The nightly review of the day’s carnage may be nauseating, but it is useful. Our violent disposition is a sort of chronic illness that threatens our survival. Like any disease, it must be identified before it can be treated.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.