I recall with fondness the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” in which cartoonist Bill Watterson reminded us of the youthful joys of playing “pretend.” Calvin was a 6-year-old boy; Hobbes was his stuffed tiger, but when Calvin was alone, Hobbes came to extraordinary life, becoming a mordant philosopher, sage, and most of all loyal companion on Calvin’s imaginary adventures.
My favorites appeared on the occasional Sunday, when Calvin, in the persona of his alter-ego Spaceman Spiff, rocketed through the cosmos to battle all manner of hideous alien creatures, smiting them with his “frap-ray blaster." By the final panel, though, Spaceman Spiff most often crash-landed back on Earth, where the space monsters were revealed to be his teacher Miss Wormwood, babysitter Rosalyn, or classmate Susie Derkins. For all the joy we may have experienced in joining Calvin on his flights of imagination, Watterson could always be counted on to bring Calvin – and us – back to cruel reality. How we long for someone to do so today.
Yes, it’s fun to play “pretend,” but one can only play it for so long. For too many people in America today, it has become far too easy to pretend that, to cite just a few examples of fashionable delusions, the president and vice president are competent, that inflation is not a problem, that the southern border is secure, that men can become women and vice-versa, and, most troubling to those in my profession, that crime can be reduced by being kinder to criminals.
The New York Times recently reassured us that murder across the U.S. has trended slightly downward this year after a dramatic rise that began, not coincidentally, in the summer of 2020. This is welcome news, certainly, but there is little to indicate violent crime will return to its pre-George Floyd levels anytime soon.
And why would it? Our media and academic elites, wracked by misplaced guilt over what they have labeled “mass incarceration,” have cowed politicians into enacting policies that have hamstrung the police and emboldened criminals, with the result being an increase in crime, reversing a trend that began when crime peaked in the early 1990’s. Despite the minor decline cited in the New York Times, crime and disorder will in all likelihood increase until those same politicians, like Calvin in the final panel, crash land back in reality, or else are voted out and replaced by others already so grounded.
And how was that crime wave stemmed? By the simple acts of identifying and arresting lawbreakers, then keeping them incarcerated for long periods, thereby removing them from the society of their law-abiding fellow citizens. In New York City, for example, murders peaked at a horrifying 2,245 in 1990, or more than six every day. This high-water mark, or to put it more grimly but accurately, high-blood mark, came after the yearly number had remained at over 1,500 since 1972.
Owing to the innovative police practices instituted by William Bratton, who was appointed commissioner of the NYPD in 1994, murders in the city declined to 983 by 1996, when Bratton resigned, and continued falling steadily until 2019, when the figure was 319, a remarkable achievement in any case, but especially so given the two million increase in the city’s population over the same period.
A blast from the past with this video we created in the early 90s while I was privileged to lead the then-separate NYC Transit Police Department. It was one of the weekly messages to help motivate the cops — and drive public support of the police. A poignant message still today. pic.twitter.com/6bcoD79v6Y
— Bill Bratton (@CommissBratton) July 21, 2022
And yet, since the death of George Floyd in May 2020, when the great national game of “pretend” spread more rapidly and thoroughly than even Covid, it’s being undone. There were 468 murders in New York City in 2020 and 488 in 2021, figures that are acceptable to the city’s pols and those in Albany, who coldly calculate that the added deaths are an acceptable price to pay for greater “equity” in the criminal justice system, which in turn yield favorable mentions in the sacred text of the modern left, the New York Times.
While the national murder trend is slightly downward, some cities in the country are still experiencing frightening increases. In Birmingham, Ala., murders are up 34 percent from the same period last year, the same increase seen in New Orleans. Phoenix, Long Beach, Calif., Denver, and Milwaukee have all seen slightly smaller but still worrying increases.
And the murder numbers don’t tell the whole story. In Chicago, murders have fallen 16 percent, year over year, but a sense of ungovernable disorder has gripped the city. Violent crime has long been considered a fact of life on the city’s South and West Sides, but neighborhoods once thought to be safe, like Lake View, Lincoln Park, and even the Gold Coast, have seen a sudden spike in robberies and carjackings. Chicago’s media, including its two major daily newspapers, do their best to ignore or downplay the city’s crime problem, but websites like CWB Chicago and HeyJackass.com keep Chicagoans informed. On any given day a visit to CWB Chicago will present the latest person accused of a killing or attempting to kill someone while out on little or no bail for a pending felony case (the total is 42 so far this year).
Also on the website are videos of the wanton violence plaguing Chicago, incidents like this one, in which a man was robbed and beaten on a CTA train, or this one, in which a man was robbed at gunpoint in the Wicker Park neighborhood. The victim managed to escape, but a final thumb in the eye for him, and for all honest citizens of Chicago, came when police officers spotted the robbers’ car but were forbidden from giving chase due to the city’s ridiculously restrictive pursuit policy. Detectives believe the crew is responsible for at least ten other robberies, a number that will surely increase as the thugs know that to escape apprehension all they have to do is drive away.
[Google/YouTube has seen fit to "restrict" the video below, for no other reason than it depicts in an unflattering light several muggers in hoodies leaping from a car and attacking an innocent woman walking down a residential street in broad daylight. Click on it anyway:]
It has always perplexed me that a state so full of fine people can produce the most loathsome, corrupt, and inept politicians, but Illinois pols have truly outdone themselves with the passage of the ludicrously misnamed SAFE-T Act. Just as the Inflation Reduction Act will lead to higher inflation, the SAFE-T Act will make people in Illinois less safe. Among the many provisions in the law’s 800 pages, which was hurriedly passed in the final hours of the legislative session, is one that eliminates cash bail for those arrested for any offense conceivably punishable by probation, a list that includes almost any crime one could name short of first-degree murder.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is fond of pointing to the city’s 16 percent reduction in murders this year, but she is careful not to mention that even with this decrease, Chicago’s murders are 32 percent higher than they were before the Summer of George Floyd. The SAFE-T Act, which becomes law Jan. 1, will only make things worse.
We don’t have to accept this. We know how to combat crime because we did it in the 1990’s. How many hundreds or thousands more people will die before we stop playing “pretend”? I wonder what Hobbes would have to say about it.
There is comfort to be found in self-delusion, especially when your delusion is shared among so many of your friends and admirers. Consider Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago, the gutters of which are awash with the blood of shooting victims. As of this writing, 2,386 people have been shot and 434 murdered this year in the city, an average of twelve shooting victims and two murder victims every day.
The violence is for the most part is confined to neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, but even residents in neighborhoods once considered safe are now dodging bullets. On Wednesday night, eight people were wounded when gunmen shot up a party bus in the Old Town Triangle neighborhood near Lincoln Park. It was the city’s third shooting with at least five victims in a six-hour period. A 15-year-old boy was killed in one of them. Thirteen more people were shot on Thursday, one of them fatally.
Mayor Lightfoot consoles herself with the fantasy that this daily display of violence can be attributed to the Covid pandemic, which she claims has impinged on the criminal courts’ ability to keep lawbreakers in check. Anyone who doesn’t share the mayor’s desperation to believe this nonsense should read the refutation of the claim by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Like so many others in politics, academia, and the media, Mayor Lightfoot entertains this fantasy because she cannot publicly admit the uncomfortable truth about crime, which is that there are neighborhoods in Chicago, as there are in every large American city, where the only restraint on criminal predation is the presence of police officers able and willing to intervene in it.
For the past several years, most especially since the death of George Floyd last year, the American left, to include Mayor Lightfoot, has busied itself delegitimizing the police, portraying them as contributors to, not solvers of crime. This has motivated veteran officers to retire earlier than they might have, younger ones to leave the profession, and left those who remain on the job so dispirited as to be reluctant to engage in the type of proactive police work proven to reduce crime.
Consider the map above, taken from the Chicago Tribune’s website, on which each of this year’s murder victim is represented by a blue dot. The map resembles nothing so much as a petri dish choked with poisonous spores, with more being added every day. Viewed in this way, it’s easy to see the city’s murder problem as an abstraction, especially if one lives in a neighborhood where the dots are few or absent altogether. Putting aside any demographic patterns that might be inferred from the arrangement of the dots, suffice it to say that those neighborhoods where they are most heavily concentrated are those where the city’s social and moral fabric are most conspicuously frayed, and where effective police work should be most readily welcomed and encouraged.
Each of those dots represents someone who, until he was struck down (in most cases by gunfire) was going about his business with no idea what was about to befall him. And, almost as important as the lives taken, each of those dots is like a pebble plunked in a pond, with the ripples of anguish and sadness radiating out to the dozens of people who knew the victim and the thousands of others who every day live with the sound of gunshots and the specter of bloodstained sidewalks and fluttering strands of crime-scene tape in their neighborhoods.
For every shooting victim there is of course at least one shooter, someone who woke up in the morning and had his breakfast before venturing out carrying the gun he would use to deadly effect later on. He was unafraid of carrying that gun because he had, perhaps deliberately, perhaps inchoately, calculated the risks of doing so and found them acceptable.
They are acceptable to him because many if not most of the cops who patrol his neighborhood have similarly calculated the risks of stopping him and found them prohibitive. A good cop working any neighborhood comes to discern the good people from the bad, the pilgrims from the predators, if you will, the latter of whom can be divided into the dope dealers, the burglars, the robbers, and the shooters. And even when observing people he doesn’t recognize, the good cop can detect, through subtle cues in body language, those who are likely to be carrying a gun.
When he sees such a person the cop has a choice to make. He can pretend he hasn’t seen what he sees and drive on, or he can try to stop the man. The cop knows that if he tries to make the stop it can turn out in only a few ways, the first and least likely of which is that the man will put up his hands and say, “You got me, officer. I’ve got a gun, take me to jail.”
Failing this, the man may run and try to ditch the gun on the fly, or he may hold on to it while he flees, hoping to reach a safe place before the cop can catch up to him. Or – and this is where the risk assessment comes into play – the man may try to fight with or even shoot the officer in an effort to escape.
If he is both skilled and lucky, the cop will win the fight or shoot before being shot. But even if he comes through physically unscathed he very likely will be thrust into a multi-year legal ordeal during which he, the cop, will be portrayed as a villain while the man he has vanquished, no matter how lengthy his rap sheet, no matter how contemptible his past, will be canonized into the litany of secular saints and remembered as “kind” and “generous” despite all evidence to the contrary, and who will be described as a “good father” when in most cases it would be more accurate to say he was merely a prolific one.
This is the world of Chicago’s cops, and of those in most other cities in the country. Until that changes, until politicians like Lori Lightfoot can admit the truth about what ails their cities, the bodies will continue to stack up in the morgues. In the meantime, Lightfoot and her ilk will cling to the belief that it is the pandemic that is responsible for all their cities’ woes, and that all will be well if we can just get enough people vaccinated.
Yes, there is a perverse comfort in self-delusion. Alas, there is no vaccine for it.
A recent edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune featured a story with the provocative headline “Chicago Air Dirtier in July than Notoriously Smoggy LA”, with the subhead “It didn’t improve during the lockdown, and more unhealthy days are coming." The story that followed was equal parts dishonest, foolish and lazy. But it provides this writer with a stellar example with which to demonstrate how deceptive environmental journalism is routinely fashioned by today’s mainstream media.
It’s no secret that mainstream media coverage of politics is unapologetically agenda-driven these days, but I’m not sure the public realizes how deeply that cancer has infected the MSM’s coverage of science and environmental topics. Let’s put "climate change" to the side for a moment. Politically-correct climate change coverage is symptom of the disease that metastasized decades ago when legacy journalists grew blind to the distinctions that separate healthy environmental protection from irrational ecological puritanism.
The dishonesty that infects MSM coverage of science and the environment is rarely apparent to the general public. Why should it be? Most of the deceptions involve technical points that appear too complex or obscure to pore over. Worse, the most skilled deceptions don’t involve outright lies, but skillful arrangement of only those facts that support the narrative. It’s not fake news so much as it is selective storytelling. The author of the doomsday yarn featured in the Sunday Trib, environmental writer Michael Hawthorne, is a master of this particular art.
In his piece, Hawthorne implies that Chicago’s air is now chronically unhealthy and is doomed to be so for a long time to come. He concludes that usual suspects are to blame for this sorry state of affairs: Donald Trump and climate change. And, of course, there is no shortage of supporting quotes from hand-picked “experts” and selective use of data to buttress the argument.
So, let’s start with that headline, is Chicago’s air quality now worse than the chronically smog-filled L.A. basin? To find out, we have to examine relevant data. To do that, we should start by understanding what the data is telling us.
A convenient way to look at air quality data is a metric the EPA has long used called the Air Quality Index, or AQI. The AQI is a comparison between actual readings by air quality monitors in the EPA system and the target concentrations that officially define what is clean air for a variety of air pollutants. These target concentrations are known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. An AQI score less than 100 means that the highest monitor readings that day did not exceed the applicable NAAQS. Such days are described as “good” or “moderate” depending on how far below the NAAQS the worst case monitoring data proved to be. An AQI score greater than 100 is described as some degree of “unhealthy.”
There are really only two air pollutants that routinely cause NAAQS exceedances in urban areas: fine particulate and ozone. Fine particulate, officially known as PM-2.5 and for some reason known only to Hawthorne and God as “soot,” consists of very, very small airborne particles about 1/40th the diameter of a human hair. Ozone, sometimes called smog, is produced from an interaction between two air pollutants. The first is oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, that is generated by forms of combustion, be it industrial boilers, your car’s engine, a forest fire, etc. The second is Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, which describes organic vapors of all kinds, from gasoline fumes, to paint thinners to the solvents used in nail polish. When these two pollutants have an opportunity to interact and a relatively hot and windless day provides the energy and environment for the right reactions to occur, ozone forms. Ozone in the upper stratosphere is a good thing, protecting us from ultraviolet light. This sort of ozone, much of which stays low in the troposphere where it can be inhaled is not desirable.
It should be noted at this point that the reason ozone and fine particulate are the most problematic pollutants in urban areas is not because emissions related to either have increased over the decades. The opposite is true: emission rates of ozone precursors and fine particulate have steadily and dramatically dropped in the United States since the Clean Air Act was first passed in 1970. It’s the definition of clean air that has changed. Administrations of both parties have steadily reduced NAAQS for these pollutants again and again, effectively moving the goal-posts to points that make compliance a distance speck on the horizon.
Now that you have earned your official air quality ranger merit badge, we can dive into Hawthorne’s claims. Let’s start with fine particulate. Here is a plot of worst case fine particulate PM-2.5 data for the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area for 2020, through July 13:
And here’s the Los Angeles basin for the same time period:
The LA monitors pop the limit seven times in the selected time period, while Chicago monitors do so only twice. And what might be the cause of that big peak that makes for the two days in July that both LA and Chicago monitors showed exceedances? The dates of the exceedances might provide a clue: July 4 and July 5. In his story, Hawthorne observes that “Independence Day celebrations added to the (air quality) problem”. A more realistic appraisal would be that Independence Day celebrations were the problem.
It’s also important to note that neither industry nor transportation sources contribute much to PM-2.5 pollution any longer. According to EPA data assembled during the Obama administration, about 80 percent of PM-2.5 emissions are generated by “miscellaneous” sources like natural activity, forest fires, agriculture, use of consumer products, etc.
This brings us to ozone. While it is true that June and July have been warmer on the average than mean temperatures in Chicago over the last twenty years, temperatures have not been outside of normal bounds. And though Chicago has seen a jump in ozone concentrations, there’s really no comparison to L.A. area ozone concentrations:
Through July 13, the Chicagoland area logged 16 “unhealthy” days based on ozone AQI. The L.A. Basin had 46 such days in the same time period, 6 of which exceeded the single worst ozone AQI day recorded in Chicago in 2020.
One question should remain in a genuinely curious journalist’s mind: even if Chicago’s air quality isn’t worse than Los Angeles’ – which it clearly is not – there has been a blip in ozone concentrations in the Chicagoland area. If that’s not the result of climate change or the president MSM journalists are sworn to hate, what is the cause? To quote Bob Dylan: the answer my friends is blowing in the wind.
We learned earlier that ozone forms when NOx, VOC and sunlight interact on relatively hot, windless days. In most places, the sum of the complex chemical reactions that produce ozone can be thought of as NOx playing the role of the “ore” than yields ozone, while VOC acts as the “pick” that “mines” the ore. In most places. Not in Chicago. In Chicago the prevailing winds and the location of Lake Michigan on the normally downwind side of local weather patterns can change this equation substantially. In many circumstances NOx emissions don’t matter all that much and in some of those they are even beneficial, reducing rather than increasing ozone formation in the Chicagoland air-shed. In recognition of this unique atmospheric chemistry, the USEPA issued a “NOx waiver” to Illinois back in the '90s that allowed the Agency to ignore NOx emissions as they related to ozone formation in the Chicagoland metropolitan area.
The waiver has since been revoked, but the science remains unchanged. Once the lockdown in Illinois began, monitoring data shows that ambient concentrations of NO2 (the portion of NOx that EPA monitors) dropped by about two-thirds compared to seasonal norms, as would be expected with the corresponding drop in traffic and industrial activity. The evidence thus strongly suggests that neither climate change nor the Trump administration is responsible for the odd spike in Chicago area ozone, but rather the odd meteorology of the area itself. Don’t expect Michael Hawthorne or the Chicago Tribune to consider that possibility however. For them, it’s all about the narrative or it’s about nothing at all.