Before the blessed release of full-dose vaccination, I spent much of the pandemic in Norway and Canada, dodging COVID-19 waves and rising violent-crime rates in American cities. Both of my hideout countries managed infection well, and their residents very rarely kill each other. (Today Norway marks the tenth anniversary of one of the exceptions to this rule.) But I missed America, so earlier this month, back I came, over the Rainbow International Bridge from Niagara Falls, Canada, to its sister city of the same name in upstate New York. A Customs and Border Patrol officer waved me in at 12:10 a.m.
Eleven minutes later, a man tried to rob me at gunpoint.
I was in a rented Toyota Corolla, driving with three family members who were also returning to America: a woman and her two children, a 9-year-old and a toddler. Soon after we crossed the bridge, the toddler’s diaper began emitting a horrendous stench, and we looked for a suitable place to change him. It took a few minutes. One candidate spot was too dark and secluded; another would have worked fine, but a car was idling there suspiciously, so we rolled down the windows and moved on. Finally we found a gas station by the highway. It was across from a diner, and had just closed but remained brightly lit.
We parked next to one of the pumps. I got out and stood on the passenger side, checking my phone and passing wipes as needed. The child wanted to keep his soiled diaper—his only souvenir of the Falls—and he howled through the two or three minutes it took his mother to change him on top of the trunk. During a lull in traffic, I noticed that his cries were echoing through the dark neighborhood beyond the gas station. Then I saw a man in the shadows, about 70 feet away, walking fast and crossing a street in our direction. When he entered the penumbra of the gas station’s floodlights, he stiffened a little, as if mildly surprised that I had noticed him, then ducked behind the gas station’s mini-mart.
“We need to go now,” I said.
The mom was leaning into the back seat to buckle in her toddler. She protested that she hadn’t yet attached every point of his harness. Then I saw the man reemerge, wearing a red hoodie and a mask that covered his whole face. He was striding toward us purposefully, past the mini-mart and into the light, and in his hand he had a pistol.
“Now,” I said. “Don’t strap him in. Close the door and drive.” This time she heard my italics. She slammed the door and jumped in the car, fumbled with the keys for half a second, then screeched the tires and drove away. I told her about the gun, and she didn’t stop driving until she saw an outpost of the popular Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain Tim Hortons—which, under the circumstances, seemed like a potential gun-free zone, some kind of informal diplomatic sanctuary.
Over that weekend, 150 people were killed in shootings in the United States, according to CNN. I’m glad to say that we didn’t come close to being among them. As we accelerated away, the man was probably not near enough to kill any of us with a precisely aimed shot, although he might have managed to hit our rental car and force an awkward conversation at the Hertz return the next day.
I called two separate units of the Niagara Falls Police Department, to report the incident and to ask whether crime had risen recently. But neither called me back—and I suppose that is itself an indication of something. A man menaced a baby with a gun, and the police weren’t interested enough to return a phone call to find out more. (The city says crime has, in fact, been on the increase.)
One should not make policy purely from personal experience. I came away with no better understanding of how to improve policing or disarm criminals. But that night I drove for another six hours—the adrenaline kept me more alert than any cup of coffee—and I had a few thoughts. The first was facile, which is not to say wrong: There are too many illegal guns around. New York State has famously tough gun laws. But it is still America, where guns are ubiquitous. Then again, that ubiquity had complex effects on the interaction. On reflection, I wonder whether that furtiveness, when the man ducked behind the mini-mart, was a moment of hesitation—not a pang of conscience but a delay to assess whether I too was armed. That moment gave us time to get away.
Of this I am certain: I will never again visit Niagara Falls, New York, unless I have a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on my car, and maybe also one of those Koala Kare portable baby-changing stations. This reaction is not rational; at the wrong time, many nice places can be hellish. However, I feel chastened by the intensity of my irrational reaction to that awful experience. What must life be like in a place where such things happen, and the cops either don’t care or are too overburdened to respond? Apparently after experiencing an attempted robbery exactly once, I react out of proportion, and out of an abundance of caution and loathing I am treating all of Niagara Falls like a bad part of post-invasion Baghdad. Violence is a warping experience even when it leaves you unharmed.
I was in Baghdad in 2004, and I can attest that one does, to some extent, get used to violence. Eventually you hear gunfire and unconsciously judge its distance, caliber, and character (assassination? firefight? celebration?). You react, in other words, rationally. But the experience of a near-miss still messes with your mind.
During the rest of my drive, my messed-up mind turned toward statistics. One common reaction to the current uptick in violent crime is to note that rates may be up compared with a year or two ago, but are still down compared with a couple of decades ago, when crime was not the subject of a national panic—let alone compared with the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s, when panic was an appropriate response. Some statements can be true and yet also worthy of contempt; “relax, crime rates have been worse” is one of them. To erase two decades of decline in the homicide rate in a few years is catastrophic, and favorable comparisons to eras of even more wanton violence are not reassuring.
When heinous crime tracks you down somewhere where you didn’t expect it, you do not check the calendar and rejoice that it is not 1990. You wonder whether this appalling trend will ever reverse. You wonder whether actual demons are wandering the streets. How else do you explain someone reacting to the sound of a baby’s cries by chambering a round and running toward the changing table? Even if crime is lower now than in 1990, I now know that someone in my vicinity was capable of instantaneous evil, and I do not know the limit of what he would do. Many Americans living through the present crime wave are similarly unsettled, and they will do anything, or vote for anyone, that promises to restore their nerves.
Most of all, I wish those who talk glibly about crime numbers would consider that the rate of change in violent crime—not just whether there is more or less of it than before, but how fast that shift is happening—is as important a statistic as the absolute rate at any moment in time. When places get less safe in a hurry, even from a healthy baseline, pessimism and cynicism flourish, and things can easily spiral down from there. Some places need only a little pessimism to collapse entirely. Niagara Falls and Buffalo, next door, have several such neighborhoods.
I blame myself, in part. No reeking diaper stench will ever be enough to persuade me to stop again late at night at a closed gas station. I should have known better. But we all make mistakes. “After you have done it, you will wonder why you did it,” wrote Mark Twain when he visited Niagara Falls and got drenched by going too close. “But you will then be too late.”