On January 29, 2013 Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old African-American girl from Chicago, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Hadiya was shot one week after performing at events for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
The two suspected shooters told police that Pendleton was not the intended target. The group she was standing with was mistaken for members of a rival gang. In fact, local police stated that there were no indications that anyone in the group was gang-affiliated. Police suspect that the shooters may have mistook somebody in the group as a member of a rival gang encroaching on their turf.
Unfortunately the tragic killing of Hadiya Pendleton was not an isolated incident. David Muhammad, a former Chief Probation Officer, recently wrote, “In 2010, nearly 700 Chicago schoolchildren were shot and 66 of them died. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended a memorial for 260 school children who had been killed in just the previous three years.”
While it is a mistake to assume that every gun death involving children is gang- or drug-related, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund points out, “The killing of children by gun violence is not new. It has been a relentlessly unreported and under-reported plague that has snuffed out the lives of 119,079 children and teenagers since 1979. That’s an average of 3,721 child and teen deaths every year for 32 years. That’s 4,763 classrooms of 25 children each. The number of children and teens killed by guns since 1979 is two and a half times greater than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in the Vietnam (47,434) or Korean (33,739) Wars, and over 22 times greater than American military personnel killed in the wars in Afghanistan (1,712) and in Iraq (3,518).”
Because of Hadiya’s connection to President Obama’s inauguration, her killing became a national story and part of the larger gun violence narrative. While the lessons drawn by most pundits and politicians focus on the need for better gun control to reduce the kind of violence that ended Hadiya’s life, there was seldom any deeper self-reflection on the epidemic culture of violence that lies at the heart of the deaths of so many.
In particular there is seldom any attempt to understand the thought processes that would lead members of a gang to engage in the kind of drive-by shootings that destroy the lives of young people like themselves. The motives of the shooters in these cases are often reduced to convenient stereotypes that serve our need to convince ourselves that the world of gangs is an aberration in an otherwise decent society. We are told that all we need to know is that gangland thugs have no sense of right and wrong; they do not value human life like the rest of us and they need to be locked up or exterminated if necessary.
But what would we discover if we could get beyond these self-serving explanations for gang violence and put ourselves into the shoes of the shooters? The motives for gang violence are complex, and as a white male middle class liberal living safely in the suburbs, I do not pretend to be an expert in gangs. But it is the responsibility of every Christian to try to understand the world in which they live–including the world of gangs. And it is the task of every nonviolent peace activist to be cognizant of the connections between the gang violence that plagues our nation and the violence we export throughout the world.
I have been told that gangs provide their members the security, respect and a strong sense of belonging in a world that denies them these things. If true, then can we assume that when gangs shoot up a neighborhood they are acting out of a perceived threat to their own real self-interests? Are shooters acting to protect the lives and safety of their fellow gang members from real or imagined threats? Is protecting their “turf” short-hand for protecting their market share in the economy, even if it is among other possibilities the illegal drug trade? Are they acting to defend their economic interests? In short is there an internal logic to this insane and deadly violence that seems reasonable to these young people?
Certainly the easy availability of guns is part of the answer but it does not fully explain this behavior. What is the impact on these young people of being consigned to a world of gun violence, drugs and economic exploitation? How does the impulse for survival and status find expression in the context of the dominant culture that celebrates the virtues of redemptive violence (the belief that violence can save)? Given this context can anyone be surprised that a shoot-first policy would come to dominate gang members’ thinking?
And how can politicians, pundits, religious leaders and the majority of Americans condemn the ruthless tactics of gangs on the one hand, while justifying or remaining silent about the extrajudicial killings carried out in our name by our government around the globe by drones?
In a recent study of Americans’ attitudes about drone strikes, Dr. Jennifer Merolla and her colleagues at the Claremont Graduate School Department of Politics and Policy found that “So long as individuals feel threatened, we find greater support for drone strikes. What is striking about this inclination is its ubiquity and persistence: heightened support for drones under threat conditions is not limited to one partisan identity or another; it spans across contexts of terrorist threat and economic decline; and, it is not muted by simple reminders of democratic values. Even so-called signature strikes where targets are selected based on a profile of likely insurgents and terrorists are supported.”
Signature strikes are based on the same kind of profiling that gang members use to eliminate perceived threats to their fellow members and to the economic interests of their gang. If they had the same access and training to operate sophisticated killer robots like those currently being used by our government, their “collateral damage” rates would probably be the same as our drone operators.
Is there a difference between the gang members that killed Hadiya Pendleton and the U.S. government that has killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other places around the world? Are gangs who kill to protect their “turf” any different than our own government that uses signature strikes to protect its “national interests?”
When gang members like the two who killed Hadiya are caught, they often express regret about the collateral damage they inflict. In the same way our own government often expresses regret over the death of innocent men, women and children killed by drone strikes when these deaths become public. The fact that gang violence and drone strikes continue means that gang members and our government believe that the death of innocent men, women and children are a necessary sacrifice in order to protect their interests.
For Pax Christi members who are committed to building an anti-racist, multi-cultural Catholic movement for peace with justice it is important for us to be as committed to ending violence at home as we are in ending violence around the world. Pax Christi members are beginning to understand that it is morally unacceptable to be actively engaged in confronting our nation’s drone wars without also engaging the epidemic violence on our streets. At the same time our members are beginning to call out the hypocrisy of politicians, pundits and religious leaders who condemn gang violence while remaining silent in the face of our drone wars.
Gang violence and drone wars are not different issues; they are two sides of the same coin. To end both we will need to transform our nation’s values, create a culture of nonviolence, restructure our economy in order to protect the dignity belonging to every person and every ecosystem, and transform our politics to serve the global common good. The only way this transformation can happen is if we make common cause and solidarity with those opposing our wars around the world and those working to end the violence on our streets caused by guns, drugs and economic exploitation. This solidarity is part of what it means to build an anti-racist, multi-cultural Catholic movement for peace with justice.