Violent cities garner little reaction

Whether a crime makes national headlines or remains low key, residents of dangerous cities remain ambivalent about the violence on their streets.

Whether a crime makes national headlines or remains low key, residents of dangerous cities remain ambivalent about the violence on their streets.

Leah Mafrica

I can hear gunshots, grunts, shouts, screeching tires and faint police sirens in the distance – the typical sounds of a violent carjacking in a rough neighborhood. By now, someone may be bleeding out in the rain under Pittsburgh’s sky, and by the sound of it, the assailant is getting away.

I know my little brother, who sits at his computer killing people with the space bar, will probably never actually murder anyone in his lifetime. He will turn off the computer, groggily brush his teeth, crawl into bed and not think twice about being “Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City’s” most dangerous criminal, having killed at least dozens at point-blank range.

Therein lies the problem. The immunity we acquire to reacting to violence is just as scary as the violence itself.

In 2008, there were almost enough murders in Philadelphia to account for one murder per day. Of a population of approximately 1.5 million, 333 were murdered. It’s mind-boggling that the majority of us have the guts to even walk out our front doors.

It seems the only crimes that turn heads are those that are particularly heinous like mass murders, serial killings or deaths of children. Yet even then, the crimes usually hit too far from home to register as something we can even do anything about, let alone actually feel a connection to.

In less than half a year in 2009, the Pittsburgh area made national headlines for two tragically violent incidents resulting in fatalities. In early April, three police officers were shot and killed in a standoff in an otherwise quiet Stanton Heights neighborhood. On Aug. 4, a man opened fire in an LA Fitness health club in a Pittsburgh suburb, killing three and injuring nine before taking his own life.

Most local residents would say this type of stuff doesn’t happen in places like Pittsburgh. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of the LA Fitness shooting until a friend sent me a text to make sure I was OK. I couldn’t talk because I was preoccupied getting to a bar, unconcerned with something that devastated the lives of many people.

Dr. Thomas Petrone says as humans, our ability to objectify prevents us from internalizing feelings of fear, sadness and guilt. We can get out of bed, walk out of the door and get on with life.

“[Objectification] enables us to have some distance,” said Petrone, a licensed psychologist and professional counselor in Pittsburgh, “to protect ourselves from the vulnerability that comes from witnessing trauma. The down side of it is that we tend to objectify, and then we don’t get the full impact of it.”

This isn’t to minimize the experience of those who feel the impact of violence firsthand, but I think it’s safe to say we are all overexposed, one way or another.

This also doesn’t offer a solution but just a musing as to what exactly it’s going to take to get us – Philadelphians, Pittsburghers, Americans, human beings – to start batting our eyelashes at climbing crime statistics.

But what can we do? We certainly can’t hide in our bedrooms and allow ourselves to be consumed with the full realities of the everyday violence we’ve come so accustomed to. But we can’t go on living like violence is just a character flaw of humanity that we just have to accept.

Leah Mafrica can be reached at

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