Friday, February 09, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Terrorism & Gang Violence…
Children Of The Same Environment

Last week a man born in Jordan, who had been living in St. Charles County, was arrested in St. Louis on charges of buying illegal weapons from undercover agents. The “suspect” (and I use that term loosely) had purchased several fully-automatic weapons, a claymore mine and grenades. According to press reports, he apparently had told agents he needed them to go to war.

He was then promptly released on $50,000 bond.

Rewind. What?!

Are there no secret prisons? Was the hotel for suspected terrorists full at Guantanamo? Is it their busy season?

Apparently the man had a more plausible explanation for the judge and prosecutors than the jihadist holy war that immediately came to my mind.

His lawyer explained that he was simply buying the illegal weapons to sell to street gangs. That explains everything. Nothing to look at here folks…move along now.

Which prompts my first question. Why do we seem to care more about Americans being killed by terrorists from overseas than by gangs on the streets of every large American City? We should be as outraged and demanding answers. Perhaps more importantly, we should be looking at the causes and attacking this homegrown problem at its roots. Which could perhaps help point the way to more effectively combating international terrorism at its source.

I’ll use St. Louis to make my point. Not because it is simply the closest major metropolitan area with gang violence, but because it is, and I am sad to say, one of the worst in the nation. St. Louis had 129 deliberate murders in 2006, ranking it as one of the most violent cities in the nation. It represented a drop of just two from the previous year, but St. Louis County went up by seven to 35.

St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa attributed part of the high rate to a certain “gangster” attitude that any perceived slight should be met with violence and a corresponding retaliation. In the Middle-East they call it simply an “eye for an eye”.

Over half of the killings in St. Louis occurred in just two of the nine police districts and these were the two on the North Side where gang violence predominates. North St. Louis has become a killing field where too many hearts have become hardened to the violence and too many people look the other way out of fear.

Would more police on the street help? A military “surge” if you like?

Not necessarily. New Orleans, with its own bad reputation for gang killings, experienced nine murders in the first eight days of this year. The murders occurred despite the presence of 300 National Guardsmen and 60 Louisiana State Troopers that have been on hand to assist beleaguered local police. While the police force is down from its pre-Katrina strength of 1,700 to just 1,400 officers, the population of New Orleans has been cut in half. So, in theory, you could double the number of police officers in St. Louis and it would have no appreciable impact on the murder rate.

So what do St. Louis and New Orleans (post-Katrina especially) have in common? The answer is hopelessness.

Twenty miles down Interstate 70 from St. Louis is St. Charles County. Last year we had one…yes only one, homicide in 2006 in a county with a population nearing that of the population of the City of St. Louis.

Poverty is obviously one of the root causes, but poverty alone doesn’t breed violence. Many of us grew up in families of limited means and turned out just fine. But one thing we always had in abundance was hope…the American Dream.

St. Charles County was recently recognized as being the top county, out of 115 in the State of Missouri, for children and youth services. Twenty miles down the road, the City of St. Louis has the highest incidence of infant mortality in the State.

One of the most important factors in my opinion is education. Give a child a good education and you give them hope they can succeed, that they can make something of themselves. St. Louis City Schools have failed and failed miserably to give children either hope or a good education.

The drop out rate for St. Charles County is 2.6% compared to the State average of 3.7. The cumulative drop out rate for the City of St. Louis is 61%!

While I applaud moves by the State of Missouri to now take over the management of the St. Louis Public Schools, it begs my second question…what took them so long?