Cover Story

Loaded questions

"Loaded questions" Continued...

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

The chief insisted on the now-famous “broken windows” theory—cracking down on smaller crimes that lead to larger crimes (and snagging serious offenders). He encouraged officers to stop and search people they reasonably suspected of a crime. He pursued vigorous crime tracking, and deployed officers to the city’s hot spots.

Crime fell dramatically across the board, and though Bratton favors some gun control legislation, he insists smart policing is a bedrock for reducing crime. Cities that have followed New York’s lead have seen similar drops. 

That’s not the case in New Orleans, and for many residents—young and old—the cycles of poverty and violence make it difficult to imagine another way of life. That’s especially hard for working class, law-abiding residents trying to lead peaceful lives.

Watkins says his church seeks to extend the hope of life in Christ. Mostly, that means preaching the gospel and being a good neighbor. It also means throwing block parties, hosting an afterschool program, and playing basketball with youth in a dangerous park.

The pastor looks for opportunities to tell troubled young men how Jesus identifies with them: “How He was born in low esteem and not in a significant place. How He didn’t have much. How people hated Him. And how He was even killed. … Nevertheless He was loved of the Father and came to do all this for us.”

Over time, Watkins hopes that message will penetrate dark corners, and he’s encouraged to see youth and families pursuing new patterns in the context of a Christian life and the church.

He knows it’s hard work that will take a long time. “I’ve told my church that we may have to see ourselves as Moses instead of Joshua,” he says. “I wanted to walk into the Promised Land yesterday, but there’s a real sense in which we may be just tilling the soil and setting the groundwork for the next generation. … We may be the early settlers.”

Back in Atlanta, Justina Dix has been tilling the ground a long time at Summerhill Community Ministries. The ministry started 14 years ago as an outgrowth of her personal ministry to those struggling in her neighborhood.

These days, the ministry serves a few dozen children from kindergarten to 12th grade with sports, activities, and an afterschool program focused on homework, mentoring, and a peaceful environment.

On a recent afternoon in the ministry’s small house near the end of a dead-end street, a dozen children from some of the roughest sections of town sat quietly for an afternoon Bible lesson. Valentine’s Day is approaching, so the children learned about 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind.”

It’s a hard lesson for some of these children to understand, says Dix. Some endure child abuse. Others watch drug deals in their living rooms. Some know their mothers are prostitutes. Few have strong fathers in their lives. Many witness gun violence.

Dix, her small staff, and a couple dozen volunteers work to help the children face immense challenges. Dix pleads with mothers to help their children lead better lives. She goes to court when a child is abused. She cooks dinner for hungry neighborhood kids. “I go to bat for them,” she says.

It’s the long, hard, work of a lifetime, and it does bear fruit: Some of youth in the program have become the first in their families to go to college. Others are the first to graduate from high school.

Still, the obstacles remain. During our interview on Jan. 31, a news report flashed on Dix’s phone: A middle school student at nearby Price Middle School had shot another student in the neck. Dix shook her head: “You see.”

Later at the scene of the crime, authorities announced the student’s injuries weren’t life threatening, but worried parents paced an intersection behind police tape near the school. They craned their necks to look for the last students to emerge while helicopters buzzed overhead.

Police announced the students would ride the bus to their normal stops, as three buses raced through the intersection. Some mothers strained to see if their children were on board. Faye Roberts, the mother of an eighth-grader, panicked: “My son doesn’t ride the bus!”

Before her son eventually walked safely out of the school, Roberts explained her fear. “They’re dropping him off in a neighborhood he doesn’t live in, and it’s getting dark,” she said. “What if he gets shot?” 

Running scared

TRIGGER? A scene from the video game “The Last of Us”
Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America/AP
TRIGGER? A scene from the video game “The Last of Us”

Though mass shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre are rare, they are terrible—and often terrifying to the public. The national impulse is quick: We must do something. The reality is blunt: We often can’t prevent tragedy.

Finding a middle ground is difficult. Edward Welch—a counselor, author, and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation near Philadelphia—says while it’s right to take practical steps to protect our families, it’s important to acknowledge our limitations.

For example, many counselors say predicting whether a person will grow violent is exceedingly difficult. Some of the common traits of recent mass shooters—insular behavior and victim complexes—aren’t terribly uncommon.

Welch notes that certain behavior—like playing ultra-violent video games—could be a trigger for violence in some cases. The brutal realism of many games could “create alternatives for people that they might not have invented for themselves.”

Parents who are worried about their teens should seek help, he says, and churches should be ready to receive them. Church leaders and members should ask themselves: Do our people know how to turn to Christ in their suffering? How can we deal with our own sinful behavior, especially anger? How can we cultivate a church that welcomes parents who struggle with their children?

When it comes to coping with fear in the face of national tragedies, churches can also help their members by emphasizing one of the most common commands in the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” Welch says that command shows “we have a God who knows we struggle with fear,” and comes with a reminder in 1 Peter 5: “He cares for you.” —J.D.

Prescription for violence?

David Healy
NNS/Landov
David Healy

When Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., killed his mother and 26 others, he may have been taking medication, according to a former neighbor. For now, the deceased 20-year-old’s mental health records are sealed by a court order. But the shooting has reawakened a debate about whether certain psychiatric drugs may, in some cases, trigger violent behavior.

Over the past two decades, news organizations reporting on school shootings and acts of violence have sometimes noted whether the perpetrators—both teens and adults—were taking psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs. Labels for stimulants like Ritalin and Concerta and antidepressants like Wellbutrin, Paxil, and Prozac warn such drugs may, in rare cases, cause suicidal or psychotic thoughts.

David Healy, a professor at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, has for several years stirred controversy for claiming psychiatric drugs may trigger acts of violence. In an article published in PLOS Medicine in 2006, Healy and two co-authors showed that some patients on antidepressants had an increased risk of violent behavior.

As a psychiatrist himself, Healy told me he prescribes psychotropic drugs to his own patients. But he thinks pharmaceutical companies haven’t properly informed doctors and patients of the potential risks of certain medications: “The drugs can make you restless, they can make you disinhibited, and can make you actively psychotic—so that, for instance, you might hear the ‘voice of God’ saying, ‘Kill that man across the street.’”

Few of Healy’s colleagues in psychiatry are willing to blame mass shootings on antidepressants, however: Studies correlating the drugs with aggression don’t necessarily prove the one causes the other. David R. Rubinow, the chair of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said by email the attempt to link medication to gun violence was “a shameless effort to redirect attention” from the larger problems. He described those problems as easy access to guns and too little money spent on appropriate mental health treatment. —Daniel James Devine

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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