Friday, December 4, 2015

Who should be afraid now?

When Stew and I visit the United States we can count on one tedious question to come up: "Aren't you afraid to live in Mexico?" Over lunch, when we visited Chicago in October, a friend asked us that and it struck me as odd, considering I'd just read in the local newspaper there had been five murders in the city the night before, and Chicago and New Orleans were running neck and neck for the title of "Murder Capital of the U.S."

In fact, following a string of mass murders—almost one a day this year according to some estimates—expats from Mexico should be the ones asking that question when we visit the U.S.

This morning's New York Times reports that Americans, stunned not only by the frequency but the senselessness of the mass murders—the lack of any rhyme or reason that would allow you to protect yourself—are now the ones looking over their shoulders in fear. Over five thousand readers reacted to the article, mentioning among other things, their personal escape plans or owning guns in case a shootout erupted around them.

Look out for "transgendered leftist activists" with guns. 
Fears for one's safety are fueled by both facts and perceptions. Several weeks ago, factual reports of a string of murders in San Miguel, enhanced by gossip and extrapolation, set the local expat community on edge. As I wrote in a previous posting, Stew and I are not immune from such vacillation. Someone gets bumped off on the other side of town? Don't worry about it. A stiff turns up close to home? Oh, shit.

But in general we've somehow learned to manage and localize our fears in Mexico. When we drive to the U.S., we stay away from narcomeccas like Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa and head for border crossings as far from them as possible. We don't drive at night or on back roads, no matter how picturesque. One of the considerations in the design of our home was security; someone might still get in—no place is impregnable—but they are going to have to work at it.

What's most scary about the violence gripping the U.S., though, is the randomness. One might get killed at a movie house, while attending church, near a family planning clinic or at an employee Christmas party at a center for disabled people. The shooter could be a Muslim radical, an anti-abortion zealot, a racist dimwit or, most often, just some nut with a gun.

As they say, there's no figurin', though some Americans try to. When we visited San Antonio a month ago, Stew and I were struck by the number of billboards for gun shows, gun stores, firing ranges and other gun-related paraphernalia. I'm sure gun-toting locals will argue that guns make them feel safe.

But to Stew and me, the apparent surfeit of guns in San Antonio made us feel distinctly unsafe. When you walk into a grocery store, how many customers are packing and ready to start shooting over whatever—that they just got fired, thrown out of their house by their wife, or are just intoxicated? Would bringing my own gun make my produce shopping experience safer and more pleasant?

In fact, the growing number of legal and illegal firearms in the U.S.—by some estimates enough for every man woman and child—has made the guns-for-safety argument tragically circular. The more threatened people feel, the more guns they buy, which only heightens the fear of getting shot by someone, anyone, with a gun, either by accident or on purpose, and that fuels the next cycle of demand for more weapons. And so on.

There is usually an uptick in gun sales after a mass shooting incident, sometimes triggered by some local government genius who argues that the only way to make, for example, moviegoing safer is to bring a Glock with you in case the mayhem on the screen spills into the theater.

Governmental authority should be responsible for maintaining public safety but it fails at that on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the entire law enforcement apparatus is riddled with ineptitude and corruption. Army trucks, loaded with soldiers clutching machine guns, periodically cruise through San Miguel, but they seem more like toy soldiers than credible security agents.

In the U.S. the same paralysis obtains. Pres. Obama pleads for Congressional action to control the availability of guns but you can tell by the sad tone in his words and eyes that he's pretty much given up. In Congress, Republicans call for prayers and the intervention of the Almighty but won't even contemplate the most timid gun-control measures. To make matters worse, there have been numerous incidents recently of police shooting people first—usually black people—and asking questions later.

Occasionally, some public official will come up with an original theory. After the shooting of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz suggested that the shooter might have been a "transgendered leftist activist," as if that would clarify things a bit or soothe people's nerves. It doesn't for me.

Hmm. For the time being, my friends, Stew and I are staying in Mexico, which suddenly looks pretty safe. And that's that. For now.