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‘It’s Not About Crime, It’s About Values’

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the moral pussyfooting of contemporary liberalism.

On the night of June 27, 2012, a seven-year-old girl, Heaven Sutton, was shot down in front of her home by two members of a Chicago gang. It is said that she was killed by a stray bullet, but this simply means that her murderers did not intentionally aim at her. It certainly does not mean that her murderers didn’t see her—it only means that they didn’t care. After all, when gangs set out to murder members of rival gangs, they can hardly be expected to take the time and trouble to worry about who might be in their line of fire.

Such gang violence is drearily familiar to Chicago and other large American cities. Even so, the killing of a seven-year-old girl was bound to arouse attention, but not quite as much attention as the comments on her death made by Rahm Emanuel, the recently elected mayor of Chicago, who had previously achieved national prominence while serving as President Obama’s chief of staff. When asked what he thought about the Heaven Sutton case, Rahm Emanuel replied, “It’s not about crime, it’s about values.”

Needless to say, for most of us, the killing of a seven-year-old girl is not just a crime, it is an outrage. And it certainly isn’t “about values,” except insofar that it is a violation of our own deepest moral ones. No wonder there were follow-up questions trying to discover what Emanuel could possibly mean by his remark. "We've got two gangbangers, one standing next to a kid,” Emanuel said by way of clarification. “Get away from that kid. Take your stuff away to the alley. Don't touch the children of the city of Chicago. Don't get near them. And it is about values.... And I don't buy this case where people say they [the gangbangers] don't have values. They do have values. They have the wrong values. Don't come near the kids—don't touch them.”

One shudders to wonder what the alleys of Chicago must be like when its mayor suggests they are the proper place of rendezvous for gangs intent on shooting down their rivals.

So Emanuel was indeed saying that the killing of Heaven Sutton was “about values.” He insists that the gang members do have values, just like you and me. He objects to people who say that gang members “don’t have values.” That would be too judgmental. The problem with violent gangs, according to Emanuel, is that they simply have “the wrong values.” Yet Emanuel seems to be aware that, in making this statement, he is being a tad judgmental himself. After all, who is he to say whose values are right and whose are wrong? Surely Emanuel remembers all the trouble that George W. Bush got into when he dared to declare that the 9/11 terrorists were “evil-doers.” Bush was swiftly denounced by flocks of Ivy League professors for his—gasp!—“demonization” of al Qaeda. If the president of the United States is not permitted to call the murderers of several thousand American citizens “evil-doers,” then obviously the mayor of Chicago can’t go around calling the murderers of a single little girl “evil-doers.” No, the killers of Heaven Sutton are not evil-doers. They just have “the wrong values.”

And what does Emanuel propose should be done about those who, at least in his own subjective and no doubt culturally conditioned opinion, have the wrong values? You don’t tell them to stop shooting each other—here, again, we must avoid being too judgmental. You ask them, rather politely of course, if they wouldn’t terribly mind shooting each other someplace where they were less likely to hit the occasional innocent bystander. Like a much-vexed mother who tells her unruly children that they must go outside if they insist on playing too roughly and upsetting the furniture, Emanuel’s advice to the gangbangers is: “Take your stuff to the alley.”

One shudders to wonder what the alleys of Chicago must be like when its mayor suggests they are the proper place of rendezvous for gangs intent on shooting down their rivals. One also wonders if Emanuel quite understands the importance of the element of surprise when it comes to gang violence. There is a reason violent gangs will suddenly, out of the blue, open fire on their enemies on public streets and thoroughfares. This tactic makes them far more likely to kill their opponents and makes it far less likely that their opponents will kill them, which is, after all, the traditional advantage of the ambush and the reason Chicago gangs—like others across the country—routinely resort to this method.

If Emanuel is really serious about advising gangbangers on the proper way to kill each other, which seems to be his main concern, perhaps he should try to persuade them to abide by the classical rules of dueling. A gentleman from the 4 Corner Hustlers would be selected to face off with a gentleman chosen from the Manic Insane Vice Lords. Their seconds would load their weapons, make them stand a certain number of paces from each other, and then the signal would be given to fire. Each opponent would be permitted a single shot and no more. It would be much like a scene from Tolstoy. At the very worst, the two opponents might kill each other off, but that would be the extent of the damage.

If the president of the United States is not permitted to call the murderers of several thousand American citizens ‘evil-doers,’ then obviously the mayor of Chicago can’t go around calling the murderers of a single little girl ‘evil-doers.’

Of course, an alley is a most unsuitable location for dueling, since, by its very nature, it is open at two ends, and so cannot guarantee the absence of unintended human targets, but secluded areas of public parks could be set aside for this very purpose, considering that no rational person would be caught dead wandering in the secluded area of any Chicago park. Furthermore, the city of Chicago could post large signs that say, “No children allowed beyond this point.”

Before you dismiss this idea as being too whimsical, consider Emanuel’s far more whimsical approach. Here again he strikes the same note normally used by much-vexed mothers, only in this case when the mother is forbidding the mean boys of the neighborhood to hang around her own children. “Don’t touch my children. Don’t come near them,” the mother declares, and so does Emanuel. He might have added that these mean boys shouldn’t touch elderly ladies or even the hard-working, middle-aged guy who is just minding his own business, since they deserve some consideration, too. But, unfortunately, men armed with guns don’t need to touch, or even get close to, their victims, since the whole point of having a gun is that you can kill people with minimal risk to your own neck. And, despite Chicago’s tough gun laws, the mean boys of Chicago have plenty of guns and completely understand how best to use them, all of which makes it fairly unlikely that they will be schoolmarmed by Emanuel into adopting a more publicly responsible method of murdering each other.

Taken as a whole, Emanuel’s comments on the killing of Heaven Sutton represent an unusually disturbing example of the moral pussyfooting that has become endemic among contemporary liberals. The dread of being judged judgmental prohibits the mayor of Chicago from using old-fashioned labels, such as evil or wicked, to describe a kind of behavior that even the most unenlightened societies have regarded with moral horror and revulsion—the killing of an innocent child. When Emanuel describes this as a “wrong value,” he betrays an ignorance of the very concept of an ethical value. No one can value what is inherently subversive of the moral order. The arsonist sees no value in setting a house on fire—he does it for kicks. The sadist finds no value in torturing others—he does it for the thrills. The evil-doer derives his pleasure from the very fact that he is destroying what ordinary, decent people find genuinely valuable. That is not a value. It is the ultimate anti-value, and no amount of moral pussyfooting can disguise that distinction.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes "Scalia’s Wise Dissent," "Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?," "The Occupy Movement and the Communism of Everyday Life," and "The Hayek Effect: The Political Consequences of Planned Austerity." Kevin A. Hassett discusses "Raising the Cost of Crime." Roger Scruton contributes "Riots of Passage." Jonah Goldberg says "Riot Rationalization Misses the Mark."

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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