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126 AUGUST 2009
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The rhetoric of youth crime prevention

Kiaras Gharabaghi

Shock, sadness, fear, outrage. These are just some of the words heard all over the airwaves and read in the newspapers about the recent wave of deadly youth crime in Toronto. And often they are spoken with such sincerity that one is almost moved to believe them. The commentators themselves are credible and important participants in the public debates: academics, politicians, neighbours, concerned citizens and, for the ultimate in victim participation, youth themselves. And the message is consistent and resolute; “something must be done” they all shout out, sounding determined to back up this revelation with the utmost in rhetorical aesthetics and unlimited commitment to continued ambivalence.

The solutions proposed vary considerably in scope and in imagination. We hear of small initiatives in neighbourhoods that involve recreational opportunities for youth so that they are too busy to kill each other. And we hear of national initiatives related to legislation and public policy, invariably designed to make us feel better about having imposed ever-toughening penalties against those involved in violent crime. Some years ago we moved from a maximum sentence of three years for young offenders to five years, then to ten, and now our eloquently misinformed leadership is proposing fourteen years. The specificity of fourteen is wonderfully misleading; thirteen would have sounded arbitrary and fifteen might have led some to believe that the policy is based on the careless rounding up of numbers. But fourteen, well, that’s just perfect, entirely drawn out of thin air to be sure, completely devoid of any evidence, yes, but it is specific, clear, concrete and must surely be the brainchild of a man in control of our problems.

And so we continue living our urban life, cheerfully consuming the products of child labour from places where human rights are seen as optional, promenading in our SUVs, and politely declining the requests of our peddlers while expressing dismay, shock and surprise at the apparent explosion of youth violence on our streets; well, technically not our streets, since we don’t actually go to the places where these youth live, but still, streets for which we pay property taxes. Our concern for the well being of youth is really quite touching. After all, some of our leaders have been getting up very early in the morning to express their concern live, on the radio, in conversation with the early morning host. Surely if they didn’t care, they would have waited for the afternoon show host to take the airwaves at a much more civilized hour. And then they tell us how all of this is impacting them, their families, and their constituents, and of course, that something will have to be done.

Interestingly, no one ever talks about the other victim in youth violence incidents. Perhaps it is just too much of a stretch to consider the shooter a victim. If the dead youth is the victim, the shooter must be the perpetrator, the sinner, the evil one that needs to be removed from access to society. There couldn’t possibly be two victims and no perpetrator. That kind of talk just violates our need for seeing the world in the dichotomous bloom of good and evil. Not to mention that if we recognized the shooter as one of the victims, we would potentially have to do something for him. That’s preposterous!

Let’s be clear: once you kill someone, regardless of your age, you lose the right to claim victim status. Alright, I can work with that. But it would appear that you lose that right not only for yourself, but on behalf of anyone who might be at risk of shooting someone. Now that is convenient. After all, we know that most of the youth engaged in serious violence have themselves had some pretty sad lives; family breakdowns, poverty, under-housing or homelessness, abuse, neglect, marginalization in most public systems, and, let’s face it, frequent exposure to the often denied monsters of racism and oppression. As long as you don’t shoot someone, you can get help with all of these problems, because as everyone knows, our supremely culturally competent and youth-friendly social services have long ago resolved the root causes of violence – poverty, housing, addiction, mental health, oppression, marginalization.

To everyone’s surprise, we are finding that youth at risk of killing someone are not availing themselves of the easily accessible and clearly effective solutions being offered by our service providers. Must be their fault. And so when they do shoot someone, forget all that sappy “my childhood was a little difficult” stuff and declare them to be the problem. Our creativity is truly awe-inspiring, and certainly this approach of disengaging empathy during the victim years and enthusiastic demonization following the killing renders our social service system rather efficient too!

One would think that the foundation for any solution to youth crime would start somewhere in the vicinity of decency: give families a decent place to live, a decent place to work, a decent place to play and a decent place to just be, and perhaps we could move forward. Sounds simple enough, but here is the catch: the decency principle applies to all families from all cultural, ethnic and racial background and quite regardless of their degree of thankfulness. In fact, if we dared to dream a little, we might even imagine ourselves as a community where everyone shares the beautiful places, and everyone takes responsibility for renovating the ugly places. This strikes me as much better than talking about fourteen years, or keeping kids busy with recreational programs in the hope that they might not notice they live in a dump, or talking about the need for something to be done, knowing very well that nothing will be done.

Our youth are beautiful. Their actions speak to what we, the adults, have created.

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