Political casualties: The killing fields of Chicago

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE July 24, 2016

"Real men don't put their children on the firing line."

Malcolm X

Although Malcolm X was denouncing the Children's Crusade during the tumultuous times of the civil rights era, and the use of kids as protestors, taking them out of school to publicly challenge the likes of Bull Connor and George Wallace, his words perhaps ring truer today than fifty years ago. Because in the time it takes for me to write this article, and you to read it, very likely another child has been victimized by senseless violence, and probably in Chicago or Oakland or Philadelphia or Los Angeles or Detroit or, well you get the idea. As a society we are allowing children to be caught in the cross fire of special interest groups, the racial divide, politics, and gunfire.  And they aren't the only ones senselessly murdered. People from 1 - 60 are gunned down in our cities on a weekly basis. Just this 4th of July according to the Chicago Sun Times, four homicides and 50 shooting victims in the Windy City; this is considered progress compared to years prior. Small consolation given there is a 49 percent increase in both shootings and homicides during the first six months of 2016 in Chicago. Think of the irreplaceable loss of human capital.....


Not too long ago my friends invited me to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform in Boston. Had Sir Isaac Newton attended, he might have rethought his theory of gravity. As if unbound by the laws of nature and gravitational pull, these magnificent athlete/dancers would glide through the air, seemingly flying, and demonstrating artistic expression one can only describe as incredible. The dancers revealed a marvel in motion that was truly breathtaking. But somewhere in my reverie, lost in thought enjoying the performance, a deep sadness fell over me, because it dawned on me so many children in our inner cities, especially Chicago, very likely from similar backgrounds as the dancers, will never get the chance to realize their God given potential.  It is difficult to dance, or attend medical school, become a teacher, a preacher or pilot, when death comes early, and people from toddler to young adult are killed senselessly.

Early in med school, doing a pediatric clerkship at an urban hospital, one of my first patients was a 12 year old boy, and victim of multiple gunshot wounds - in doctor speak multiple GSW. Here was a beautiful African American child who was just minding his own business walking home from school. I will never forget the look in his eyes as I held his hand; we bonded instantly, as he bravely tried to hide his pain, before the meds took over. His insides looked like they went through a Cuisinart ® machine. He survived, but without much of his colon, small intestines, part of a lung, and spleen. His life will never be the same. Having run a free practice in a resource challenged part of New York I saw the hardships kids of all color and ethnicity faced, the resilience with which they tried to grow in spite of harsh circumstances, and possessed of talent some may never have fully realized because of violence, poverty, and lack of sufficient affirming, positive role models.

Let's be clear. As a physician the only color I care about is red as in blood red, not Republican red or Stars and Stripes red or velvet cake red but blood red - and there's too much of that stuff flowing freely on the streets of Chicago, and other major cities across our great nation.  This isn't a Democrat or Republican problem, although it is one of political will. It isn't an isolated Black or White racial problem, although some would like to make it about race; such killings and racial narratives are contributing to a greater divide among people who have more in common than that which separates. This isn't a purely gun problem either, although some would like to misdirect the narrative towards vilifying the weapons instead of addressing the root problems that drive folks to utilize a wide array of killing tools - guns, knives, bats, fists. And it isn't merely a journalism problem, although the media have often failed to cover the carnage accurately or intensely, instead choosing to follow the narrative that it isn't about the victim but the victimizer, and succumbing to political correctness instead of doing the kind of reporting  that might just make a difference.  Where is Bill Hudson* when we need him, or his successors?

The "killing fields of Chicago," as well as those in other urban centers, is an American problem, and an example that we have lost our way, our will, our integrity, and our sense of community.

If a microbe were causing the level of untimely suffering afflicting young people at the rate of death, disability, and injury we are seeing in Chicago, and elsewhere, we would be clamoring as a nation for the NIH and CDC to put their best minds on the problem, flying Pharma researchers and scientists down to Bethesda or Atlanta, and expecting results yesterday. We would solve the problem, and we would stop the deaths. Instead, the Killing Fields of Chicago becomes a morass of special interest politics, duck and cover strategies, finger pointing, attempts to deny a problem exists, or blaming others for the disgraceful state of affairs that allows year after year the senseless murders to continue.  

s naïve as it may sound, have we no humanity left in us? Are we so morally bankrupt, or so devoted to our own advancement that we would allow partisan politics and identity group politics to override our basic sense of decency as citizens? Are folks within the afflicted communities so afraid, isolated, misled into thinking they have no brothers or sisters outside their community, or proud that they refuse outside help, and in so doing condemn their own as sacrifices? Are our politicians so corrupt that they refuse to allow outside help, and in the process allow their fellow citizens to be shot, stabled, mugged, kicked, and killed, when solutions could prevent such suffering?  Perhaps Malcolm X was not only correct, but prescient in his comment - we are sacrificing our youth - letting them remain on the "firing line," senselessly, at the altar of political correctness, partisan or identity group self protection, and corruption. I can hear him still shouting "Shame on the men (adults)."

Adults playing politics while young people die is a disservice to the victims and the vulnerable who remain, who every day wonder if they will become the next number in a growing statistic of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and those who will never grow up to dance in Alvin Ailey, or become the next Ben Carson, or Barack Obama, or Martin Luther King Jr. Lest we decide for whatever reason to make this a color issue, allow me this caveat....If we focus on any color but blood red, we will lose sight of where we need to be. Kids are dying, and we can choose to allow it, or stop it. The dead don't care about race or politics, but I bet, like Jacob Marley, they might care a bit about having more time on earth!

Some might argue that the murder rate in Chicago has declined from the worst years. Small solace to those who died last week, or the week before, or ......

Dostoyevsky once opined that a society is defined by how it treats its prisoners. I would argue that a society is defined by how well it treats its most vulnerable. Nowhere in that sentiment is a codicil about race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.

Most societies die from within.  Usually it is corruption, greed, and sloth that bring down enterprises. Such has been the pattern throughout history. Yet few civilizations or dynasties - from Rome to the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire or the Soviet Union - can attribute their destruction to the wonton, widespread murder of their children and young adults during times of peace.

The Killing Fields of Chicago - the numbers speak for themselves; but who speaks for the people, the lives lost represented by the numbers? If not us, who?  Isn't it time we stop the rhetoric and just tell the truth? Like the reality that chaos breeds chaos. Consider part of the chaos is kids giving birth to kids, and perennial poverty, and the deemphasizing of education, when that is the most consistent, tried and true ticket out of poverty. Or groups deemphasizing law and order - how could violence not be the outcome?!

Consider how marvelous (and miraculous) it would be if all political parties decided in one loud, united voice to find common ground on just one important problem facing Americans, (all the while they continued to fight it out on all the other agenda items in their platforms), united solving a single issue - like the Killing Fields of Chicago. No rhetoric, just the kind of problem solving health care professionals do when treating a complex patient, or scientists do trying to turn a molecule into a medication. Dare to dream?

To be sure poverty plays a role. Race is still an issue, but I defy the notion that anyone - black, white, red, yellow, or brown skinned - would sit on the sidelines when asked to help a young person rise above the damning circumstances many of our youth face in the inner cities. People choose how they will think and act in challenging times; it is why some people rise out of difficult circumstances and achieve, like starting BET and Ebony, while others end up on entitlements or on the streets.  But usually those who escaped humble beginnings had a mentor, an inspiration, a guardian angel. Perhaps therein lies the problem - we have not challenged ourselves to be the helping hand, the guardian angel, for a young person, or held our leaders accountable to change the status quo.

Political casualties: The killing fields of Chicago. The status quo and our political leaders, even community leaders are failing. Sadly their report cards aren't written in ink, they are written in blood.  Thankfully it is not too late to make a difference. But the clock is ticking. And as it ticks, has another young person just died needlessly?

*Bill Hudson was a photojournalist who captured some of the most compelling scenes in the Children's Crusades, and civil rights movement, including the horrific image of a police dog attacking a black youth. The photograph ended up on the front page of the New York Times, and became one of the defining images that catalyzed greater political participation across the country to address the inequalities afflicting blacks in the 1960's. 

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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