Republicans love crime. As they hunt for the next “migrant caravan” to amp up the paranoid white vote, a new spike in murder rates is drawing their attention. This time, Republicans might find that crime doesn’t pay.
Crime has been a core rightwing talking point for ages. There are generally more crimes in places where people actually live, so cities traditionally have higher rates of crime. Since Democrats now dominate almost every city in the country, a focus on crime stories, especially if stripped of context, could make crime look like a Democratic problem. Republicans have been testing messages meant to pin the blame on Black Lives Matter protests, “defunding police,” or poor governing in “Democrat cities.” None of those claims stand up to the briefest examination, but normally that wouldn’t matter.
All Republicans have needed in the past to rev up a crime scare are images of black men with guns. So far, this crimewave isn’t delivering the goods. Incidents grabbing the public spotlight now are mass shootings by mostly white psycho killers, gonzo stories of ‘Florida-man’ crime, and loads and loads of “white ladies gone mad,” especially at the airport. Our crack-fueled crimewave of the late ’80’s was defined by gang members carrying Uzis. The symbol of our era is this naked white lady wrecking an Outback Steakhouse. We are a deeply traumatized country.
Let’s set the record straight on a few details. We are not experiencing a “crimewave,” so to speak. Overall crime actually declined last year, as one would expect during a lockdown. We are, however, seeing disturbing increases in two types of crimes, murders and general “mayhem” – crimes of unruliness in public settings.
In the midst of this surge, it should be noted that our overall murder rate remains very low, about where it was in 1965, but that rate increased by roughly a quarter last year. This did not happen elsewhere in the world. With no clear pattern to the killings, the story of rising homicides is getting lost beneath another narrative. Crimes of general mayhem are capturing the public imagination.
Over the decade prior to the pandemic the FAA acted on 1300 unruly-passenger complaints from airlines. The agency has received 1300 complaints since February. We’re not just talking about rude or boorish outbursts. Attendants are facing a sustained pattern of assaults, often serious, with little or no apparent context. An incident in Southwest Airlines in May led to a flight attendant losing two teeth. Her attacker was a woman. These are not the kinds of crimes Republicans need to fuel their hoped-for racial or class panic. There are no bad neighborhoods at 35,000 feet unless you’re flying Spirit.
It’s not just airline workers feeling this wave of crazy. Service workers all over the country are experiencing it too. A crazy white guy stabbed a restaurant manager in a Houston suburb back in March for asking him to wear a mask. An elderly white woman in The Villages, FL was arrested for assault at a Burger King in May. Upset over the thickness of the tomatoes in her burger, she began hurling racial slurs, then the sandwich, at restaurant workers. Workers in Asian restaurants are facing assaults, tied to a rise in anti-Asian attacks.
The “Karens” have been out in force. Bagel Karen was filmed calling a fast food worker the n-word over a problem with her order. Downtown Karen has been luring the dogs of passersby into traffic. Antivax Karen had to be carted off a Royal Caribbean vessel after she tested positive for the ‘rona but refused to leave. Perhaps the most disturbing and revealing of all this year’s Karens is Victoria’s Secret Karen. She threatened to assault a black woman in a Victoria’s Secret store. Then, when she realized she was being filmed, she collapsed in a fit of hysterics.
A naked, screaming white guy made news last month for trying to enter people’s cars while doing flips on a busy road. This isn’t one of those ‘scary big-city stories.’ It happened in Knoxville.
We are well on our way to more than doubling last year’s pace of documented road rage assaults and murders, which was already nearly double the previous year’s toll. The US is averaging ten mass shootings a week so far in 2021. A troubling percentage of these shootings, like the murders at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in April, defy any attempt at explanation. It’s not merely that the shooters’ motives are flimsy or insane, but there seems to be no motive at all. Many of these killers aren’t bent on revenge for some slight, shouting terrorist slogans or even following orders from their dog. They’re just showing up one day with a gun blasting at whoever is unlucky enough to be there. They die with no explanation or discernible motive.
Though journalists love to talk about crime in Chicago, this gonzo crimewave is neither an urban problem, nor a regional one. Chicago saw a stunning 55% increase in homicides in 2020, but that was only a modest rise compared to many other US cities. Lubbock chalked up a 180% increase in homicides. Murders were up by a stunning 60% on the mean streets of Omaha in 2020. Murders doubled in Mitch McConnell’s Louisville. Murders nearly doubled in white, Republican Colorado Springs.
“Urban crime” just ain’t what it used to be and people are beginning to notice. Wilmington, DE has maintained a murder rate consistently about a third higher than Chicago for many years. Kansas City, Little Rock, and Memphis regularly outpace Chicago in homicide rates. Our emerging new murder capital is Birmingham, AL. Even Shreveport, LA had more murders per capita than Chicago in several recent years. We don’t hear about the much higher rates of violent crime in our small and midsize cities because they aren’t major media markets. Unlike the crimewaves of yore, today you’re almost certainly safer on every facet of wellbeing in a thriving, large city benefiting from first rate infrastructure, quality government, and capable policing than you are in some struggling midsize town. It’s going to be hard to weave this crimewave into a political narrative helpful to Republicans.
Any “why” in crime statistics is always elusive. We still have no clear explanation for our last crimewave and no answers for why it faded. However, as we seek to understand this season of gonzo mayhem, one statistic from 2020 might shed some light.
In recent years it seemed we might have turned a corner in our epidemic of drug deaths. From a peak of 71,000 overdose fatalities in 2017 the numbers had flattened and begun to decline. That all changed in 2020, as drug overdose deaths spiked by an unprecedented 30%, costing 93,000 lives. We can be fairly confident that this carnage wasn’t caused by defunding police or impolite protestors. Related to this wave of overdoses, early estimates suggest that ‘deaths of despair’ skyrocketed last year, perhaps as much as 60%.
Looking for a poster-child for this gonzo crimewave? Look no further than the unnamed woman who completed her flight last week from Charlotte to Dallas duct-taped to her seat. According to another passenger, Gonzo Karen left her seat in-flight because she “did not want the plane to fly up anymore.” When attendants would not put the plane back on the ground, she lunged for the plane door, trying to open it. Attendants struggled to restrain her, eventually taping her to her seat, with tape over her mouth. We are not okay.
We’ve lost roughly as many people to COVID-19 as our battlefield deaths in the Civil War. Across the first year of this tragedy our senior elected leader ranted like a lunatic instead of mustering resources to help. We emerged from this dark era seriously damaged in ways that are difficult to measure.
No other country is experiencing a similar wave of COVID-era homicides or our outburst of gonzo mayhem. As Republicans sift through this wreckage looking for fuel for yet another fire, they’re unlikely to find any helpful narratives. If nothing else, this gonzo crimewave has restored some sense of American exceptionalism.