Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET on June 21, 2022.
On a recent June weekend, 10 people were killed in shootings across cities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In Philadelphia, multiple active shooters fired into a crowd in the popular nighttime destination of South Street. “It was chaos,” one witness told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “People were coming off the street with blood splatters on white sneakers and skinned knees and skinned elbows.”
Coming so soon after the horrific Uvalde school shooting, these other killings were perhaps unlikely to garner much national attention. These stories were primarily of concern to the people living in the cities in question. But perhaps more importantly, this was “just” crime—no political motives, no obvious political solution, no broader lesson to be learned, with no wisdom to be gained.
Crime is rising nationally, but it is still experienced locally. In an October 2021 Gallup survey, the number of Americans who believe that crime is up in their local area is the highest it’s been in 25 years. Other polls underscore crime and personal safety as a top concern among registered voters. In Washington, D.C., where I live, many of my own friends and acquaintances can relay a recent experience with petty crime—and the sense of fatalism that comes from realizing that authorities and institutions probably won’t do much, for whatever reason.
Washington, like many big American cities, had been enjoying a couple of decades in which rates of homicide and other violent offenses dropped steeply and then stayed low. Crime obviously still happened, but at least it wasn’t getting worse. Human beings tend to experience change in relative rather than absolute terms. They can make comparisons accordingly, assessing the way things are versus the way they were recently. And right now, the comparisons aren’t flattering. Yet in certain circles on the left, an orthodoxy has taken hold: To complain about ostensibly minor crime and other urban disorder, when so many people endure much worse, is to flaunt your privilege—which some readers may say I am doing right now. But off of Twitter, many left-leaning urbanites will acknowledge that, say, being assaulted by a stranger on the street is actually bad. Despite their efforts to resist the temptations of wrongthink, otherwise liberal Americans are being redpilled.
Anecdata, of course, are not the same as data. And in cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, progressive district attorneys have insisted that their critics have gotten the facts wrong. As The New York Times recently reported, the now-recalled San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin routinely “confront[ed] voters with data that shows overall crime has not increased meaningfully while he has been in office.” Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s cantankerous district attorney, has developed a habit of browbeating critics in town-hall meetings with appeals to “the science.” His in-house criminologist, Krasner has insisted, can give people the real numbers if they really want them. Ordinary residents are being told that what they perceive to be true is not, in fact, true.
The problem here is that humans understand and interact with the world based on perception and feeling. Politics is about policy, but it is also about human nature—which, however one wishes to characterize it, is a constant to contend with. You can try to transcend human nature by appealing to people’s better angels or through education and enlightenment—but only up to a point. Information and education don’t necessarily serve the purpose liberals assume they will. Very few of us will read a detailed academic journal article about trends in crime reporting before deciding how to feel about crime. Your assessment also depends on which facts you pay attention to. Any self-respecting political scientist will be aware of how the data can be manipulated to confirm one’s prior beliefs. A criminologist—considering how politicized debates over crime are—is likely to have ideological biases that inform his or her research. Are you looking at “overall crime” or certain subcategories—and who’s to say which subcategories matter more than others? The notion of neutrality may be comforting, but no one, in the end, is a disinterested observer.
In writing this article, I read through various sources to get a better handle on the available crime statistics. The Times at least provides verifiable numbers, even if you have to sift through some editorializing to get there. The aforementioned Times article on Boudin’s tenure as San Francisco’s chief prosecutor states that “there is no compelling evidence that Mr. Boudin’s policies have made crime significantly worse in San Francisco. Overall crime in San Francisco has changed little since Mr. Boudin took office in early 2020.” Yet, just a few paragraphs later, the same article says that “burglaries, especially in wealthier neighborhoods, have soared during the pandemic. The city recorded 7,575 burglaries in 2020 and 7,217 last year, a sharp increase of more than 45 percent from 2019.”
If an increase of more than 45 percent in burglaries does not qualify as significant, then what would be? (When I requested comment, a Times spokesperson, Charlie Stadtlander, defended the article, noting San Francisco police data showing declines in several categories of crime since Boudin took office. “While burglaries increased sharply,” Stadtlander wrote in an email, “the pandemic and other broad societal factors seem to have influenced the patterns of property crime, rather than any causal link to policies within the purview of a district attorney.”)
The very nature of truth and reality has come under similar scrutiny in Philadelphia. In late 2021, Krasner declared, “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.” He added, “It’s important that we don’t let this become mushy and bleed into the notion that there is some kind of big spike in crime.” The debate, though, was a national one, consuming local politics in cities across the country. How should one assess crime? Were the numbers just the numbers? On the question of whether or not there was a crisis, The Guardian dutifully published a fact-check last summer. “‘Crime’ is not surging,” the reporters wrote, referring to national-level rates. “Even the broader category of ‘violent crime’ only increased about 3 percent last year … It’s homicide in particular that has increased, even as other crimes fell’” (emphasis mine). The article shifted back and forth between noting large homicide spikes in cities such as New York and St. Louis and describing a less dramatic, but still worrisome, national trend.
The motivated reasoning here, ostensibly in the form of an objective fact-check, reveals a larger instinct to minimize the problem. America is a big country. Were Philadelphians supposed to be reassured that it wasn’t all that bad, on average, everywhere else? In the same article, the Guardian writers did acknowledge that in 2020 Philadelphia “returned close to [its] historic highs for the number of people killed in a single year.” (It surpassed that high the following year.) Yet the article seemed to suggest that alarming figures shouldn’t worry us too much—after all, “even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s.”
That people are being killed but at lower rates than their parents’ generation was an intriguing message—and one that may not have been as reassuring as intended. (When I told a Guardian spokesperson as much, she responded, “This particular article is focused on crime statistics, not how residents perceive increases. At no point in the piece is it suggested that gun violence shouldn’t worry residents.” She also recommended that I listen to the experts: “If you’re interested in learning more about why journalists distinguish between overall crime and lethal violence, we recommend consulting some of the literature on this question by American criminologists.”)
I was and still am sympathetic to what Krasner is trying to do in Philadelphia, the city where I was born and a city I still care about and visit often. Philadelphia’s criminal-justice system is notorious, and for good reason. The city has one of the highest incarceration rates in a country that has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (to say nothing of the moral stain of “mass supervision,” which is what happens after convicts are released but find that they’re not actually free). Such notoriety is due in no small part to the 19-year reign of District Attorney Lynne Abraham, whose enthusiasm for life sentences and capital punishment earned her the nickname the “Queen of Death.” But one can acknowledge this history without putting “crime” in scare quotes—as if voters should make do with the fact that overall crime is down but homicides are up. Presumably, homicides are worse, because it is more difficult to recover from death than from experiencing a break-in or witnessing creative acts of shoplifting at your local CVS.
Being forthright with the public when certain categories of crime are increasing is important, but debates over numbers obscure a more fundamental objection. The data miners, the journalists, and the otherwise well-intentioned people who believe—as one might believe in a religion—that all we need to come to the right conclusion is the right information seem unable to grasp that crime isn’t just crime.
Crime is also a proxy for a deeper malaise, that inchoate sense of almost-but-not-quite social collapse that’s in the air we breathe, impossible to measure with precision but unmistakably palpable all the same. The malaise draws on our own confusion, driven by the intuition that things aren’t as they should be. Burglaries and homicides are not the only signs that something is amiss. The tent encampments that have spread across our nation’s capital over the past two years suggest that something has gone very, very wrong. This is the most powerful city in the world, and yet people are living in makeshift tents in its richest neighborhoods, a stone’s throw from the White House and Capitol Hill.
But no one seems to know what to do about it. Or people do know what to do about it but can’t be bothered to act. Or they’ve found a way to resign themselves to a new reality—the so-called new normal. After all, the thinking goes, young professionals and middle-class urbanites should be grateful for what they have, that it at least isn’t worse, because it could always be worse. Who are they to complain anyway—especially if they are white, well-off, and gentrifiers to boot—about the decline of a city that isn’t really theirs or the fact that they might get assaulted after dinner at a nice restaurant?
To be a liberal is to take care to balance one’s individual need for basic security with a benefit of the doubt for the least fortunate and compassion for the victims of an uncaring society. The good liberal knows that poverty, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness fuel criminal activity. These are root causes. But the root causes haven’t been addressed, even by the very progressives who say that they should be. This, too, reflects a debate about moral claims and starting assumptions, and fact-checking can’t quite address those. Are the least fortunate necessarily morally superior simply by virtue of their victimhood? Is crime simply a matter of addressing grievances—or is it also true that there is bad and even evil in a fallen world and that it can’t always be resolved through social policy? Sometimes, particularly when it comes to actual criminals, crime must be punished.
It is easy to dismiss this line of argument as a right-wing trope. Because everything is a culture war, what hurts Democrats benefits Republicans. To acknowledge crime in left-wing bastions is to concede something to conservatives, or so the thinking goes. But this isn’t quite right. After all, it is people of color—not the predominantly white liberals who often dismiss the prevalence of crime as a right-wing talking point—who are most affected by crime in American cities. There’s something odd about those same white liberals, along with the politicians and pundits who cater to their sensibilities, insisting that rising crime rates are a figment of our imagination.
That crime is real—and getting worse—is not a fantasy. The recall of Boudin succeeded in an overwhelmingly liberal city. The problem of crime is hurting and dividing liberals, because crime is not—or at least should not be—a matter of left or right, subsumed by the superficial polarization that is roiling American life.
People see what they see, and to deny the truth or legitimacy of what they see with their own lying eyes is patronizing at best. It is also dangerous. Things aren’t worse; they just seem worse makes for an odd battle cry, and I, for one, don’t find it particularly reassuring. The disorder on display in American cities isn’t the end of the world, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world for people to care and worry.