What crimes should be prevented?


Today, Congress is holding the first hearing on the Boston bombings to determine if more could have been done to stop the tragedy and if the city responded appropriately. It reminds me of the Benghazi hearings. I don’t really see what the point is. Obviously, we should try to learn from these types of events. But it seems that Congress’s goal in these hearings is to show that they are tough on…something…it isn’t clear what. They want to know why there wasn’t better communication between agencies, why no one from the mosque or community said something, why no one prevented this from happening in the first place. It boils down to who should be blamed for allowing this to happen, besides just the accused perpetrator.

This has become a common practice in the aftermath of these big tragedies. Sure, the perpetrators are to blame but who else? There is a belief that these things should not happen. That if they do happen it is because the system allowed it to happen. That the result should be a tightening up of the system to prevent future attacks. Yet, we don’t treat other tragedies this way.

When there is a sexual assault, we don’t ask why no one suspected the perpetrator and stopped them from being near their victim. The discovery of a drug ring or meth lab doesn’t prompt an investigation into why we, as a society, have failed to stamp out drug use. Gangs are common in many cities and our prisons but they are not treated as an indicator that the system has failed. We accept some crimes as “normal”–in the normative sense and the Durkheimian. It is unfortunate when these things happen but we can’t expect to prevent them. After all, there are just some bad people out there.


Looks normal too me…

So why do we think terrorism should be preventable? Why do we think that someone close to the accused should have seen it coming? That the government and law enforcement should be able to prevent random acts of violence targeting civilians and using improvised devices? Some members of Congress criticize law enforcement and community members for not recognizing the tipping point where an individual’s extreme views became a public threat. But these same politicians don’t demand that law enforcement correctly predict when a misogynist will commit a sexual assault or when a high school dropout will turn to gang life or start pushing drugs in the community to make a living.

This is unfortunate because more is known about the structural causes of these more acceptable crimes. We know the danger that poor access to education and health care poses. We know that communities with low employment opportunities are breeding grounds for a wide variety of crimes. We know that gendered violence too often goes unpunished or under-punished. We know that sexual assault is more likely to be perpetrated by a man yet we continue to demand that victims work to prevent it.

In too many communities, it is not an issue of looking for a needle in a haystack. It is easy to think of ways to prevent crime; ways that demand a government response–for example improved access to quality education and health care. I won’t claim that these social problems can be eradicated or that the solution is easy. If we could reduce their instances to near the levels of domestic terrorism that would be a miracle. But the truth is there is nothing sexy about preventing normal, everyday, acceptable crime. We may have Congressional hearings on education or health care or gun control but never on the instances where the structural short fall became obvious–the Sandy Hook shootings or Joe dropping out of high school or Karen being bankrupted by medical expenses. Where are our politicians then? To demand that it wasn’t an individual that failed but the larger system?


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