Shortly before leaving America for Britain, after 12 years as a correspondent, the relative of one of my son’s friends politely declined my invitation to visit us in London.
“I don’t think I could go to Europe,” she said. “It doesn’t seem safe.”
Try as I might I could not suppress a laugh. My wife and children are African American. I am British. We were living in Chicago.
“The odds of you being shot dead here are far greater than of you being killed in a terrorist attack over there.”
When the president uses his executive powers to ban more than 200 million people from entering America, ostensibly in the interests of security, and then, in the same week, the House of Representatives relaxes background checks for gun ownership, one is compelled to question the sense of proportionality when it comes to security. Whom do they intend to keep safe? By what means? And at what price to liberty?
Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that since 9/11 not a single American has been killed in a terrorist attack by a citizen from the countries on this list. The reality is that an American is at least twice as likely to be shot dead by a toddler than killed by a terrorist. In 2014 88 Americans were shot dead, on average, every day: 58 killed themselves while 30 were murdered. In that same year 18 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks in the US. Put more starkly: more Americans were killed by firearms roughly every five hours than were killed by terrorists in an entire year. It is unlikely that scrapping a rule requiring extended background checks for gun purchases by some social security recipients suffering from mental illness will improve the situation.
(To hide behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an act of fallacious sophistry. Toasters don’t make toast, people make toast. True. But toasters exist to make toast: guns exist to kill people.)
One need not downplay the importance of terrorism here. Terrorism is not only murderous. In its ability to spread anxiety and undermine democratic engagement with violence it is also deeply reactionary. Rather than galvanising people around a cause it divides them in the crudest manner possible – on the basis of fear. That’s as true when America kills innocent civilians. But the fear most Americans experience daily isn’t imported – it’s home grown. That’s true across the board, but particularly true for some minorities. Every day seven children and teens are shot dead in the US. Firearms are the biggest killer of young black people and the second biggest killer of all children, after traffic accidents. When the new US education secretary, Betsy DeVos, suggests schools might need guns to protect themselves from grizzly bears, she’s clearly not capable of gauging the real threat to American children.
While researching my book about all the young people who were killed on one random day – 23 November 2013 – every single parent of a black teenager who lost a child that day that I interviewed said they assumed this might happen to their kid. “I didn’t think it would be him,” said one mother. “I thought it would be his brother.” “You wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you didn’t,” said another.
Doriane Miller is a primary-care physician who practises on Chicago’s South Side, where one teen was killed that day. Dr Miller noticed a significant number of young black patients arriving with psychosomatic symptoms – many also had tattoos bearing the names and dates of loved ones who had been lost to gun violence. When she tried to talk to them about it they shut down.
“There was that sense that this is the way it is in my life and in my community,” she said. “There is a learned hopelessness around this. And so you suck it up, you man up, and you move on.”
Many of the areas where these young people live, and die, look like war zones – empty lots, half-demolished houses, depleted infrastructure, militarised policing, potholed roads, boarded-up houses, abandoned churches. But more importantly, they are experienced as such. People (mostly young men) disappear – either to prison or to the grave – leaving a huge gender imbalance. Times are hard, and the informal economy is rife, meaning there are spivs everywhere making an ostentatious display of their wealth. The one major difference is that whereas wars often cement communities as people band together against a “common enemy,” in these areas the enemy is everywhere and, potentially, anyone.
These, too, are Americans. They too deserve security. Indeed it is a nonsense to talk about securing the borders from the outside world if many of those who live within those selfsame borders continue to live in a state of constant fear.
Many of those who insist that, when it comes to terror, one must balance individual rights against collective security, become curiously silent when it comes to adapting their interpretation of the right to bear arms to the issue of public safety.
In 2002 I interviewed the late Maya Angelou about her views on the 9/11 terror attacks. “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America,” she told me. “But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.”
If the current administration applied just half the zeal to making sure all people in the country feel included and safe as they do to making sure some outside of it feel excluded and anxious, the impact on Americans’ sense of security would be repaid exponentially.
After a judge blocked the Muslim ban over the weekend Trump said that if there was another terrorist attack America should blame him. Between me writing this article and you reading it the chances are another child will be shot dead. Whom, I wonder, should we blame for that?
Gary Younge is the author of Another Day in the Death of America, A Chronicle of 10 Short Lives