At the height of the insurgency in Iraq, when we took a moment to stop and look, we could try to imagine what life was like for Iraqi children trying to go to school, trying to avoid the bullets and bombs that struck, seemingly at random, in their neighborhoods. Or think about the children who knew those killed by an American cluster bomb in Yemen, a bomb that was launched on the direct command of President Barack Obama after agreeing to a target identified in late 2009 by the Special Operations Command. Imagine waking up and trying to sleep wondering if you will accidentally be the next "effect" identified by a foreign force.
But the most vivid picture of what it's like to grow up in a war zone comes from a source much closer to home. A month ago, This American Life aired a two-part radio program about Harper High School in the West Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. You've probably heard of Chicago's gun violence problem in the abstract, or maybe became aware of it when a young woman who performed at President Obama's second inaugural was caught in a cross-fire a few days after she returned to Illinois. It's easy to be maudlin or bathetic about a subject like this, but the team at This American Life opted for a much simpler, more direct approach. They describe what life is like for an average teenager at a school where 29 current and former students were shot in the year before the radio producers arrived.
It's easy to blame U.S. policy for the loss of generational innocence in Iraq and Yemen and elsewhere; the good thing is that we can do something about that. We can withdraw our troops or change our targeting criteria. But the war zone outside Harper defies intervention.
Gangs? Where you live determines what gang you'll be a part of; you join your gang by default. If you don't want to join a gang, you have to actively work against the forces that structure your entire existence. The Chicago police went after the big gangs and wound up fracturing the remnants into microgangs that control territory block by block.
Drugs? Most shootings have nothing to do with drugs; the geography of drug distribution in Chicago is only indirectly linked to the geography of violence.
Police? Even saturating the neighborhoods doesn't help. When students walk home, they do so in the middle of a very busy street. Drivers have learned to let them crowd the road. Why? If they walk on the sidewalk near the trees, and if they're not walking with the right person (a rival gang), they're liable to get shot.
More activities? Kids don't go outside and they often stay at school as long as possible to avoid the violence that separates their school from their home.
Truancy? Why would a parent be eager to send her daughter to a school where this happens?
Gun control? These kids have illegal guns. They're going to have them for the foreseeable future, even if the most restrictive gun-control measures are passed.
Teachers? Some of them seem infinitely patient and wise.
Government policies? Funding has been cut for social services.
And yet — as we know — violence is down everywhere. This lulls us into a false sense of tranquility. The bedlam of the '70s and '80s, cross-pressured by racism, redlining, inattention, lead paint concentrations — that's all gone or it's much diminished.
The chaos at Harper is hard to square with everything we think we know about guns and kids. That's why people need to hear about it.