On Baltimore's climate of fear and righting systemic wrongs

Between Pratt Street and the waters of the Inner Harbor lie three beams recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York. The marble base on which they rest bears memory to the 68 Marylanders whose lives ended there on Sept. 11, 2001. I never knew those people, but I watched them die. On that morning, I was working in midtown Manhattan. Twenty floors above the city, at the corner of 43rd and Lexington, I witnessed the collapse of both towers.

For more than a year, my friends and I lived in daily fear of the city we called home. Every commute, every evening out, every new story in the paper reminded us that we might die at any time. At dinners and brunches we rehearsed with morbid earnestness all the ways the terrorists could get us—poison in the water supply, suicide bombers on the train, dirty bombs in Times Square, weaponized anthrax in office air ducts, bubonic plague in the city's rats.

At the same time, we encouraged every effort of the government to discover and destroy Al Qaeda. We read books on Afghanistan, learned the history of the Taliban, cheered the fall of Kabul, and followed the Battle of Tora Bora. We even supported the Commander-in-Chief, whose election we had disputed as illegitimate for all the months before. Everything we did was to soothe our fears.

None of it made us safer, but it sure made us feel better.

What followed was the Patriot Act, extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay, expanded FISA warrants, and the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions. We traded away basic considerations of constitutional liberty for a greater sense of security. We segregated the world into allies and enemy combatants and decided that civil rights were acceptable for some but not others. We undermined our moral authority and saddled ourselves with two wars that have no end in sight.

In its capacity to daily undermine our sense of security, the level of gun violence in Baltimore has become our 9/11. Despite real differences in the separate situations, both have provoked the same weariness, frustration, and emotional response. We take to Facebook and Twitter to share reports of "suspicious people" in our neighborhoods. We ask for increased police patrols. We criticize our prosecutors and judges for their perceived leniency. We forsake spending on education in favor of officer overtime. We allow errant analogies from our politicians, like that of Del. Curt Anderson of the 43rd Legislative District, who appeared before Tucker Carlson and told a conservative audience, "We're having a terrorist attack in Baltimore City every day." And now we want minimum mandatory sentences for gun possession despite our own experience with zero-tolerance policing and evidence that confirms such measures do not work. We don't know when the violence will end, but until it does we want someone to do something to make us feel better.

Crime in Baltimore is nothing to minimize. It's very real, and we must work to address it. But there are ways to do so that don't create a local class of enemy combatants. Many of these measures have been discussed—some favored, too many dismissed. The first among them is raising the minimum wage. So long as legitimate work pays substandard wages, illicit trades will offer primary and supplemental income to those who need it to survive. Next among them is addressing the opioid crisis as a public health issue and expanding treatment programs. Addiction is a disease and treating it reduces demand for controlled substances. Discrimination against ex-felons in employment must be ended by "banning the box" on job applications as those without legitimate work opportunities will return to what's available. At the same time, funds need to be invested in investigations and witness protection programs which dismantle criminal networks.

Gun violence is a consequence of an underground economy for which contracts and other instruments of legitimate trade are impossible. So long as that economy is sustained by the city's concentrations of poverty and the region's income inequality, we will live with the violence and the death. In our War on Drugs, heightened policing and harsher punishments might make us feel better, but they won't make us safer.

Baltimore's murder rate is horrifying. The insecurity it creates for individuals and for the populace as a whole is destroying the city. We deserve the sense of urgency our politicians are communicating, but we need them to direct it towards long-term solutions that are proven to work. By the time we're discussing sentencing for handgun possession we've already missed the point of effective intervention. Worse, we've willfully ignored the root causes of the present situation.

There are young people in Baltimore today for whom 9/11 is nothing but a story from the past, marked by a monument of fused steel in the Inner Harbor. I would like them to someday tell their children that in this city we once suffered a horrible epidemic of crime, that a brave woman called for a ceasefire, and that the people together rallied to make it last. I want those children to grow up in a city where they don't every day expect to watch their friends die. For that to happen, we must all fear less and do better.

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