For the past month or so, I’ve been thinking about a series of articles about the ways in which we define news, and the purpose served by that definition. Earlier today, I encountered the article below. It’s written by a Jesuit Priest named Jeff Putthoff who does the Lord’s work by running a youth development center in Camden, NJ. Before you read the article, you should know that half of Camden’s children live in poverty, and that only half of Camden’s adults finished high school. Once a thriving manufacturing city, Camden is located just across the river from Philadelphia–in fact, you can walk over the Delaware River, from one world to another. Camden is a great American urban challenge–and Reverend Putthoff is among those who believe in the city and its people. His view on the news is the subject of this essay, which appeared on Philly.com on August 19, 2012. I suspect most of my readers have not seen the article, so I am encouraging you to read the article by either clicking on this Philly.com link or reading the text of the article below.
Killings that don’t make news
A few weeks ago, Camden had its deadliest July since 1949. That was the year that Howard Unruh, America’s first serial killer, killed 13 people on one day. This year, 13 people were killed over the course of 31 days. At the time, I commented on how differently the violence in Camden would be covered by the news media if it had been done by a single serial killer as opposed to many killers.
Amazingly, with the killings in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., we see how gripping one killer of many is to the country. We also now have a case of domestic terrorism – and significant international news coverage – with the horrible killings outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month. Both of these incidents were unimaginable tragedies that have sparked hundreds upon thousands of debates and even more news stories. Both have elicited outrage and even responses from President Obama.
Here in Camden, where more people were killed last month than in either of the tragedies in Colorado or Wisconsin, there has been limited outrage and media coverage. In fact, there has been more attention and news about the new medical school than there has been about the people who are dying right outside its walls in the streets.
Just recently, I had in my office a young man who was speaking to his grief about losing a friend last month to a shooting. This was his second friend in a year who has been shot and killed. The loss is real, the trauma of the violence is deep, and most alarming is the lack of moral outrage that accompanies the “domestic terrorism” visited upon the people of Camden.
In State College, the crimes of Jerry Sandusky have been met with outrage. The outrage is not only about what was done to many young people, but the fact that so many people seem to have known or had some information about what was going on and chose to put Penn State’s image or football program first.
In Camden, murders are not being properly prioritized. Not only is our city being traumatized by ongoing, incessant violence and the trauma of losing life, but there is also a terrible public acquiescing that keeps it protected and perpetual. Such a lack of outrage is itself abusive. It “normalizes” the violence, making the unconscionable acceptable and continuing to wound the already wounded.
The question is, why do 13 murders in 31 days in a city of 77,000 find so little voice, so little reaction, in our world today? A movie theater, a temple, and a football locker room all engender a response that the streets of Camden don’t seem to warrant.
Camden is facing escalating crime and death. And yet the outrage is muted, the TV networks don’t send news trucks, and no memorial is held. It is the ultimate bullying: collusion with an abusive situation. In State College, such collusion is why Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down and why some officials may go to jail. As long as we continue to know and not act, the systemic and repeated abuse of Camden will continue.
The ongoing abuse and violence that are occurring in Camden need to stop. The lack of action around this issue is an outrage.
E-mail Jeff Putthoff at email@example.com.