Philadelphia’s Murder Rate Doesn’t Matter
Killadelphia. I hate that nickname, and I hate it even more in a headline, which is how we’ve seen it used most recently. I think it’s pulpy and cheap, some two-bit epithet that would be clever in an old-Hollywood sort of way if it didn’t have to apply to actual people actually dying. It’s not that I don’t understand the if-it-bleeds-it-leads appeal of the story of our city’s out-of-control murder rate; I do. But to reduce and cover the killings as a pile of numbers that can go up and down like the stock market has begun to me to feel somewhat beside the point.
Perhaps the conversation about Philadelphia’s murder rate (it’s the highest by far out of the country’s 10 largest cities, as you’ve undoubtedly read) is not the one we should be having when we talk about murder in this city. Don’t get me wrong: It is, of course, extremely problematic that 27 people have already died in 2012, and that 324 died in 2011. But to be perfectly honest here, the numbers don’t mean very much to me. The numbers don’t make me afraid, or impact my everyday life. (Does it in yours? Do you live differently because of the murder rate?)
I realize that I am lucky; I know there are people in this city who do live in fear—though that’s not because they’ve read that the murder rate is up. They are afraid because they have seen deaths, and they have known the people who have suffered. Some have been the people who have suffered, who have known the people shot or stabbed or beaten to death. I would argue that the headlines tracking the number of murders in Killadelphia miss their story: They zoom out too far. The killings should be understood in the context of the people who died and the people who killed, not in the statistics that make the murder rate a characteristic of the city alongside housing prices and employment rates, just one of the many problems we face. This problem is different.
Murders should impact our every day life. When our people are killed, our neighbors, our fellow Philadelphians—anyone—it deserves to be processed, to be mourned. It deserves our emotion. It deserves a close-up look at who died, and why. It may be human instinct to pull out the yard stick, to quantify and draw large conclusions about patterns in behavior, but it is the stories—23-year-old Kevin Kless who was just beaten to death for no reason at all; 29-year-old Ron Anderson, who appears to have been killed for a pizza he was delivering; 77-year-old Joseph Testa who was stabbed to death trying to break up a fight—that are real, that stick with us. Those lives had meaning; those deaths are unbearable to think about.
“Has Philly Become Immune to Murder?” That was the Metro headline from last week that made me think that covering as much unbearable as possible is, in fact, the way to go in this conversation about murder in Philly. We need to know all of the terrible details, the people who were victims, and details about the people who snuffed their lives, and who was left behind. Alas, we’ve let the numbers become the connective thread in this violent Philly narrative, but it is the people who make us care.
I do think the way we talk about our murders, the context in which we frame them, makes a difference in the way Philadelphians consider this problem. It could change the way witnesses decide to share information, the way people behave in general, the way we raise our children, the way we help, as Mayor Nutter encouraged, police the places we live. Our murder rate is more than a costly epidemic that’s bad for the city’s reputation; it’s life and unbearable death. We shouldn’t forget.