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We keep track of shootings like a box score

Tallying up shootings and murders gives us a false sense of control and understanding.

People watch a crew remove four bodies from a house in the 6200 block of South Morgan Street in mid-June. All four were shot to death when an argument broke inside the home in Englewood.
People watch a crew remove four bodies from a house in the 6200 block of South Morgan Street in mid-June. All four were shot to death when an argument broke inside the home in Englewood.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Numbers deceive.

Some are so big we can’t grasp them. Chicago is on the hook for $32.9 billion to its four biggest municipal pension funds. Does that number mean anything to you? Me either.

Some purport to represent something concrete when in fact they only vaguely symbolize something unknowable. When we report that 108 people were shot in Chicago over the July 4 weekend and that 17 died, those numbers are offered as clear, understandable figures.

Are they?

We write the figures, pretend to grasp their significance. But do we? Do we even try to stretch our minds to consider the pain? The hospital hours, funeral home visits, cemetery services, the endless days of grief, the entire supernova of tragedy expanding from those digits? I don’t believe we do, which might be just as well, because we probably can’t.

Alice Yin wrote a heartbreaking story in the Tribune Thursday about the family of Natalia Wallace a 7-year-old girl shot and killed on July 4, 2020. While I’m not in the habit of plugging stories in the Trib, those considerations are insignificant compared to the matter at hand. Yin takes readers on a journey alongside the girl’s crushed family, her grief-stricken father (“When they killed her, they killed me too,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Manny Ramos in a story for us last August), her traumatized siblings, hiding in the house, flinching at loud noises, struggling through therapy.

Yet read those stories, and what have you accomplished? Spent 10 minutes sensing a flicker of the pain of one family after one death. Then you move on, the privilege of the untouched. It’s like scooping up a handful of salt water at the beach, and gazing as it runs through your fingers. Meanwhile, unseen, the ocean.

Those who can’t shrug it off, because they’re supposed to be leaders, are unable to admit their own powerlessness. So they seek somebody to blame, and we’re left with sorry spectacles like CPD superintendent David Brown simultaneously blaming Chicago’s shootings on national trends and Kim Foxx letting violent criminals go. Which is it? Or is he suggesting that Foxx somehow sends ripples of violence across the nation?

Brown is among many twisting the stats to their own purposes. My readers regularly paint Chicago crime as some kind of refutation to Black Lives Matter.

“Biden is here to talk about the violence in Chicago,” one wrote Wednesday. “Everyone knows what the problem is. Why is there never a story about the low life, scum bag gang bangers who have absolutely no respect for human life. I’ll tell you why. Because people are afraid of the gangs. ... I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m a 58 year old white male. So everything i say is wrong. But i do not understand the BLM movement. 60 to a 100 people shot a week. Most of them black. Do these people not matter?”

Call me a cynic, but I suspect this email isn’t from a person whose heart is breaking for the victims. He wants to use the killings to discredit the movement against police misconduct.

I suppose we need to spell it out: Police represent law in our society. They are expected to reflect our values, not murder people because they’re Black. And so their misdeeds, though far fewer, carry greater significance than those of the criminals they are supposed to thwart. Still confused? Well, I tried.

This is grim business, and I apologize. Like you, I’d prefer to think about lunch. But this is my job.

There is one positive numerical aspect to this that flies past many, one that might offer some small closing comfort. Here’s another reader airing a common misperception:

“Our brilliant city Alderpersons spent countless hours debating the name of a roadway while Chicago continues to be the murder capital of the country.”

Chicago is not the murder capital of the country. Not even close — not in the top 20, per capita. Is that comforting? It shouldn’t be. “Not as bad as others” makes a lousy civic slogan and, honestly, if it’s your son or daughter being murdered, then one murder a year is too many. I’m not sure what thinking about it, or, talking about it, or writing about it, is supposed to accomplish. Only that not doing so feels even worse.