Hope and the Wish for Certainty: What Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer Can Teach Us About Urban Gun Violence


The gun violence that is severely concentrated in poor minority communities in American cities like Chicago has a paradoxical quality. It seems to draw our attention as it repels our reflection. And so, while stories of murder and bloodshed are a regular feature of our news, politics, and urban policy discussions, they rarely encourage us to look beyond the surface of what this kind of violence has done to the people who have experienced it, or to question how it has affected the American body politic.


This is what makes Alex Kotlowitz’s work so important. As he first demonstrated in his 1992 classic There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz has a unique gift for revealing the humanity that is often forgotten about or ignored in communities that suffer from chronically high rates of racial segregation, poverty, and violent crime.


In his new book, An American Summer, Kotlowitz knits together a collection of true stories about people affected by gun violence in the summer of 2013 in Chicago. Unlike similar kinds of accounts, An American Summer does not try to provide readers with an explanatory theory or a solution. Indeed, it is critical of attempts to do so. But in refusing to participate in this kind of discourse, Kotlowitz’s work can help us examine our assumptions and ask ourselves how should we think and what should we do about the problem of urban gun violence.

About halfway through An American Summer, there’s a short moment that dramatizes one of its most important insights. The chapter in which it appears tells the story of Eddie Bocanegra, a man who has become one of Chicago’s key violence prevention leaders and advocates for peace after serving 14 years in prison for a homicide he committed in his late teens. Kotlowitz writes that after Eddie had served his sentence, an academic asked if he would be on a panel to explore the question whether hope is possible in prison. Eddie has a philosophical disposition and a gift for storytelling. He’d be precisely the kind of person you’d want to hear think about this question. But Eddie quickly realized that the academic wasn’t interested in learning what he thought. It was clear the academic believed he already knew the answer: “that prison sapped one of hope, of any sense of future” and “diminished your sense of self.” Inwardly “agitated,” Eddie “politely but firmly declined the offer.”


The problem, Kotlowitz speculates, wasn’t that Eddie completely disagreed with the academic. Rather, it was the academic’s certainty that angered him. The way the academic presumptuously dismissed the possibility of hope for incarcerated people assumed they could never be more than prisoners of their circumstances, as it also made Eddie incidental to the significance of his own experience. In his certainty, the academic cancelled out something essential about incarcerated people’s humanity. If you lack hope, “you have nothing,” Kotlowitz writes. “It’s about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” 


It’s not surprising that the academic believed he understood the nature of hope in prison better than Eddie. It’s all too human to feel as if we should be able to understand and master the things that threaten or depress us. You can hear this wish for certainty in the way people often talk about controlling urban gun violence, like in Kotlowitz’s account of former Illinois’ U.S. Senator Mark Kirk’s 2013 proposal to arrest 18,000 members of one of Chicago’s gangs because he believed they were responsible for the city’s murders. Or when one of Chicago’s violence prevention organizations argued in 2016 that a dramatic spike in homicides was caused by decreases in its funding, and that consequently if the organization were fully funded, it could effectively cut the city’s murders in half.  Or when the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department declared in 2017 that if a proposed law passed to increase the length of prison sentences for a gun-related offense, it would create “a mental culture not to pick up a gun” and reduce gun violence by 50 percent in one year. 


Sometimes these proposals are implausible, the clear product of fanciful thinking or political desperation. Other times they are grounded in empirical observation. But regardless of how they may differ, the more certain people are in plans that aim to control urban gun violence, the more they tend to reduce violence into a kind of mechanistic problem. So conceived, violence will increase when essential inputs in a community are lacking—like a certain program, a policing strategy, economic development, a deterrent threat, or some combination of factors—but it will go down if they are maintained at an appropriate level.


This is a comforting view that we all probably believe or want to believe is true. It makes violence into an operational matter, which we can comprehend and manage. The problem with this conception is that it’s not entirely wrong, but that it never seems to fully satisfy the wish for certainty that usually inspires it. “This is how it often happens in Chicago,” Kotlowitz writes of individual incidents. “One act of violence follows another which follows another and so on. Sometimes there’s a causal relationship between them, and sometime they just happen, almost like an infection being passed along from friend to friend or family member to family member.”  The same kind of dynamic is present at a macro level. Trying to make sense of a 61 percent spike in homicides that occurred between 2015 and 2016, Kotlowitz describes how the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, the city’s foremost urban violence think tank, examined all of the inputs that experts believe could have caused the increase, but found they couldn’t explain it. Ultimately, the Crime Lab acknowledged, “What caused Chicago’s sudden surge in gun violence . . . remains a puzzle.”


When violence fails to conform to a wish for certainty, it will often produce skeptical resignation, a belief that nothing can be known about how to control gun violence. You can hear this sense of certainty in the voices of commentators who lament they can’t imagine or understand what causes people to engage in gun violence or how people live with it. Or in punditry like The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page which argued in a 2019 piece that “[t]here can’t be a rational explanation [for the city’s gun violence] because Chicago’s plague of urban warfare isn’t logical.”  Behind these expressions of skeptical resignation, there is an assumption that the kind of violence that Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities experience is beyond ordinary comprehension and control because there is something about it that is alien or inhuman.


The fact that some of the most common ways of conceptualizing and addressing urban gun violence can provoke responses that range from confident predictions to skeptical resignation highlights a significant problem in our thinking. The issue here is not with the people who live in communities with high rates of violence, but rather with what a wish for certainty requires of them to work. If we are certain we can master other people’s behavior, we cannot let them be more than the objects of our certainty. To be certain about other people means that we assume we understand their lives better than they do; that their actions are controlled by factors we deem determinative. At its extreme, a wish for certainty is like the academic’s cancellation of hope. It imagines people to be “about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” This is why public discourse on community violence often devolves into proposals of coercive force, whether in the form of increases in incarceration, aggressive policing, or even military action. It’s because a wish for certainty has already turned the people who would be subjected to these actions into almost dead things.


It is important to keep in mind the deadening assumptions of certainty as you read Kotlowitz’s book, particularly when you consider how he describes his intentions. “Let me tell you what this book isn’t,” Kotlowitz writes at the beginning of An American Summer. “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works and doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . . What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don’t feel like I’m much closer to knowing.” This declaration might be misread as an assertion of skeptical resignation. But Kotlowitz grounds his book in a radically different position. Rejecting a wish for certainty—and the lies and untruths that its deadening assumptions engender—he begins with an acknowledgement of his own ignorance, an admission he repeats throughout the book. This admission points to a critical distinction. While believing that nothing can be known closes us off to learning, a knowledge of our ignorance opens us up to possibility and questioning what we can know. A knowledge of ignorance is where the search for wisdom about human beings must always begin.


When we let go of our stubborn wish for certainty, we can learn an important truth from the lives featured in An American Summer about how violence affects our humanity. While we are embodied creatures, our humanity is not reducible to our biological existence. This is why, for example, we believe that even after people die, they retain an aspect of their humanity that seems to demand respect. We can offend the memory of the dead by speaking ill of them, just as we can disrespect corpses if we fail to treat them appropriately. Our biological existence provides the necessary, but not the sufficient set of conditions that enable us to develop and maintain a sense of what our humanity means. Such sufficient conditions lie in the practices and conventions of our community and the concomitant ways in which people treat us as subjects. Thus, when other people treat us violently, they can not only harm our bodies or end our lives, but as the philosopher J.M. Bernstein has argued, they can also injure and even “devastate” our sense of self. This kind of moral injury comes about through the ways in which violence aims to turn people into things or objects, whether by making them into a sign of revenge, a means of obtaining something of value, or a raw expression of rage or a wish for dominance.  As we require others to co-produce our own humanity, violence can fracture the trust we need that others will treat us in ways that reflect the sense that we possess a special kind of dignity because as human beings we are not like mere things or objects, but ends in ourselves.

Acts of physical violence always have a moral aspect that attack a person’s sense of self. But moral violence does not require physical attack to work. Moral violence can be uncoupled from physical attack and used to power our relationships and the conventions and practices that shape how we know ourselves and others. Throughout An American Summer, Kotlowitz shows how such forms of abstracted moral violence pervade the lives and the communities about which he writes. These forms of moral violence draw their strength from the living legacy of white supremacy, which can negatively shape people’s health and life prospects based on their race and the neighborhood in which they grow up. They structure the reductive identities that governmental institutions impose on people, as Kotlowitz shows in the story of Marcelo, a 17-year old who faced an adult criminal charge that would have legally turned him into an adult and branded him for life as a felon. 
They drive conventional wisdom that informs how most people respond to accounts of community violence, which assure us that, as Kotlowitz writes, the victims “must have done something to deserve it; they must have been up to no good.” Such forms of moral violence can even take over strategies to reduce shootings if they treat the people they are trying to help as things—like objects of a wish for certainty—rather than human beings that possess a dignity that we all share. And when that happens, violence reduction efforts can reproduce the moral harm that is interwoven with the physical violence they aim to prevent.


So where does this leave us and the problem of urban gun violence? For Kotlowitz, there are no certain answers that will relieve us from the responsibility to wrestle with this question. While the suffering that Kotlowitz writes about is isolated in poor minority communities in Chicago, its moral harm radiates throughout the American body politic, for we can’t diminish the humanity of others without deadening our own. But if we can acknowledge this essential truth about ourselves, then maybe we can learn the significance of hope, our greatest strength. As we learn from the people in Kotlowitz’s work, hope is the power that enables us to live and love each other even in the face of relentless dehumanizing treatment and sudden violent death. And this is the guiding hope of Kotlowitz’s work: that when we read about the lives featured in his books, we will reflect on our shared humanity, and that through this kind of activity, we can find ways to be more than the worst things that have been done to us or that we have done to others. 



RBC Comments Restored!

Some years ago, the RBC site was redesigned and tens of thousands of comments disappeared. Some readers were upset and a few emailed conspiracy theories (e.g., that Mark had deleted them all on purpose for some reason).

But it was just a technical glitch that no one could fix. As everyone can see, the site’s tech has been revamped again. And I just now noticed that all those comments are back with us again.

The world would have survived either way, but reading through some old ones made me realize how many thoughtful, informed, challenging — and sometimes as well very funny — comments have been made on this site over the years and I am glad to have them in the archive again.

Meet the Siemens SP260D

Electric motors are taking over from ICEs, for everything.

To make a change from the ongoing TV fantasy drama The Fall of the American Empire, aka The Game of the Throneless, let me introduce you to the Siemens SP260D.

This is an electrical aircraft engine. More details here.

This is only the second of Siemens’ efforts in the line, though they have been making electric motors since the 1890s. (AEG beat them to it, in 1889.) The striking datum is the power-to-weight ratio: 260 kW (footnote) from 50 kg, making 5.2 kW/kg. What should we compare this to?

A table of power-to-weight ratios for a sample of engines on the market today.

References: Siemens, Magnix, Lycoming, Tesla, Honda, Mercedes-AMG)

Continue reading “Meet the Siemens SP260D”

Love Means Saying You Are Woman Sorry

Yesterday, a British journalist asked me how the supporting technology was at Washington Post since Jeff Bezos bought it. I replied “Quite good” and his expression told me I had been misunderstood. So I said “I meant American quite good not British quite good”.

This reminded me of a common problem of the heterosexual couples I counselled back in the day. The wildly popular 1970 film Love Story taught Americans that “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” No wonder the divorce rate was so high in what Garry Trudeau called a kidney stone of a decade. Of course you sometimes have to say you are sorry to keep an intimate relationship going. But what do you mean when you say it?

For most of the men I saw in counseling, saying sorry meant that you had done something wrong and were apologizing. For most of the women, sorry more often meant “I feel you”. A common resulting scenario for misunderstanding would be that the husband would complain about, say, his awful boss and his wife would say “I’m sorry about that”, leading the man to reject this expression of sympathy with “Why? It’s not your fault.” Even more painfully, when the wife would describe her own troubles she might feel hurt that her husband didn’t express any sorrow. Meanwhile, he would be thinking “I feel bad for it, but it’s not my fault, so I’m not going to say I’m sorry”.

A way past this that seemed to help was to teach the couples the difference and help them become comfortable in emotional exchanges to refer to “woman sorry” and “man sorry”, e.g., “I’m not saying it’s your fault, I’m asking you to be woman sorry for me” and “I’m man sorry that I didn’t understand until this moment what you needed from me”.

Lab Report

In his dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932), Justice Brandeis wrote:

[T]he advances in the exact sciences and the achievements in invention remind us that the seemingly impossible sometimes happens. There are many men now living who were in the habit of using the age-old expression: ‘It is as impossible as flying.’ The discoveries in physical science, the triumphs in invention, attest the value of the process of trial and error. In large measure, these advances have been due to experimentation. In those fields experimentation has, for two centuries, been not only free but encouraged. Some people assert that our present plight is due, in part, to the limitations set by courts upon experimentation in the fields of social and economic science; and to the discouragement to which proposals for betterment there have been subjected otherwise. There must be power in the states and the nation to remould, through experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet changing social and economic needs. I cannot believe that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, or the states which ratified it, intended to deprive us of the power to correct the evils of technological unemployment and excess productive capacity which have attended progress in the useful arts.

To stay experimentation in things social and economic is a grave responsibility. Denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the nation. It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

Id., 285 U.S. at 310-311.

The states either supported by their courts or, in some cases, lead by their courts, have been doing a good deal of experimentation.

For instance, in League of Women Voters v. Pennsylvania, __ Pa. __ (February 18, 2018), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a Republican attempt to gerrymander congressional districts violated the Pennsylvania state constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the Pennsylvania ruling. Thus, the Pennsylvania ruling is impervious to the sort of attack I recognized as a possibility with respect to the various federal cases holding gerrymandering unconstitutional under the federal constitution.

Earlier, I posted a report on a Kansas decision based on that state’s constitution, upholding, at least temporarily, a woman’s right to an abortion.

Finally, this week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, in Montgomery County v. Complete Lawn Care, Inc., fended off an attack on a county ordinance restricting the use of certain pesticides for cosmetic purposes in the county. The attack was based upon a claim that the county enactment was preempted by state law. (Among the plaintiffs seeking to block the law was the misleadingly named “Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a Committee of Croplife America,” a pesticide trade organization.)

I suppose that it could be argued that the current round of cases differs from the situation presented in New State Ice Co. There, the courts were blocking progressive legislative actions. In the Pennsylvania and Kansas cases above, the courts were acting as bulwarks against legislative attacks on progressive positions. Of course, this gives a somewhat different take on the concept of states’ rights.

Decision Overturning Ohio’s Political Gerrymandering

I have uploaded the decision of a three-judge district court overturning the political gerrymandering of Congressional districts in Ohio engineered by Republican legislators.

The opinion is 301 pages and, no, I have not read it from beginning to end. However, due to the length of this opinion, the Court provided the reader with a more concise summary which states, in part:

“Partisan gerrymandering” occurs when the dominant party in government draws district lines to entrench itself in power and to disadvantage the disfavored party’s voters. Plaintiffs in this action are individual Democratic voters from each of Ohio’s sixteen congressional districts, two non-partisan pro-democracy organizations, and three Democratic-aligned organizations. They challenge the constitutionality of Ohio’s 2012 redistricting map. Defendants are Ohio officials, and Intervenors are Ohio Republican Congressmen; Defendants and Intervenors both argue that the Plaintiffs’ claims are not properly before this Court and defend the map’s constitutionality on the merits.

* * * * *

We join the other federal courts that have held partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional and developed substantially similar standards for adjudicating such claims. We are convinced by the evidence that this partisan gerrymander was intentional and effective and that no legitimate justification accounts for its extremity. Performing our analysis district by district, we conclude that the 2012 map dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined. We conclude that the map unconstitutionally burdens associational rights by making it more difficult for voters and certain organizations to advance their aims, be they pro-Democratic or pro-democracy. We conclude that by creating such a map, the State exceeded its powers under Article I of the Constitution. Accordingly, we declare Ohio’s 2012 map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, enjoin its use in the 2020 election, and order the enactment of a constitutionally viable replacement.


This raises a significant question. For me, this might even be characterized as an existential question. I went to law school. I then went to graduate law school. I’ve always believed that there are, roughly speaking, neutral principles of law that I can master. While there are close cases, at some point, one can discern an authoritative answer to legal questions.

There are currently pending two political gerrymandering cases before the Supreme Court: Rucho v. Common Cause, from North Carolina, and Lamone v. Benisek, from Maryland. Assume that the Court holds that courts cannot address claims that political gerrymandering violates the Constitution. That would mean that the various judges in the numerous cases that have all held to contrary have misinterpreted the law. And, of course, their actions were not off-the-cuff. Every case was well-briefed both by the litigants and by numerous amici curiae. The opinions were detailed and scholarly.

At some level, if so many judges with such a mammoth amount of legal resources at their fingertips cannot reach a “correct” conclusion, the concept of law based upon principles comes into question. In other words, I have simply been fooling myself for the last 45 years?

Cannabis News Round-Up 5/3/19

Helping banks play SAFE while serving the cannabis industry. Congress can open banks to legal cannabis industry with SAFE Act. D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser unveils bill to legalize recreational marijuana sales.

Jackson County, Oregon black market bust: $15M in pot & stockpile of firearms. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan calls for nationwide evaluation on marijuana legalization.

Connecticut pot tax clears committee, setting the stage for final legalization bill. Pot tax proposal in Connecticut similar to Massachusetts model. Contentious hearing in Hartford on Connecticut marijuana legalization. Connecticut Republican lawmakers to discuss implications of legal recreational marijuana. With time running short, Vermont House struggles with full legalization. Vermont governor Phil Scott‘s three wishes. Recreational marijuana delivery could soon become the norm in Massachusetts.

No one’s in a hurry to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. New York marijuana: What to know about minority ownership, social equity and pot arrests. Advocates oversell how New York legal weed will eliminate the black market. Will New Jersey legalize marijuana in May? Top Democrat says it’s fifty-fifty. New Jersey medical marijuana could move on without recreational legal weed, expungement plan.

Illinois is prioritizing legalization. Full, 300-page pot legalization bill could be introduced in Illinois within days. Legalizing marijuana in Illinois: A good or bad idea? Small Illinois towns hope legalized marijuana bring more jobs.

Twin Cities business leaders to discuss potential impact of recreational marijuana legalization in Minnesota. Las Vegas ordinance on weed lounges could overstep authority.

A marijuana brand with loads of street cred. Winners and losers of American pot stocks so far this year. A small marijuana company wants to sell spliffs. It won’t be easy. Scalia Law Schools symposium on the law & economics of legalization. How living near a marijuana dispensary affects your home’s price.

Taiwan resists as activists launch campaign to legalize marijuana. Canada pot exchange gets some competition.

We’re All Human

In early April of this year, a class action complaint captioned Richard Cole v United Health Insurance Company was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The complaint alleges that:

Instead of acting solely in the interests of the participants and beneficiaries of its health insurance plans, upon information and belief, UHC denied coverage for [Proton Beam Radiation Therapy (“PBRT”)] to treat prostate cancer because, on average, PBRT is significantly more expensive than traditional Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (“IMRT”) or other treatments.

The case was assigned to Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. Earlier this week, Judge Scola recused himself. The substance of the recusal order should be read in full:

In early 2017, the Court was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In
determining the best course of treatment, the Court consulted with top medical experts throughout the country. All the experts opined that if I opted for radiation treatment, proton radiation was by far the wiser course of action. Although the Court opted for surgery, rather than radiation, those opinions still resonant.

Further, a very close friend of the Court was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. He opted to have proton radiation treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston. His health care provider, United Healthcare, refused to pay for the treatment. Fortunately, he had the resources to pay $150,000 for the treatment and only upon threat of litigation did United Healthcare agree to reimburse him.

It is undisputed among legitimate medical experts that proton radiation therapy is not experimental and causes much less collateral damage than traditional radiation. To deny a patient this treatment, if it is available, is immoral and barbaric.

The Court’s opinions in this matter prevent it from deciding this case fairly and impartially.

Black De-Carceration

The imprisonment rate in the United States is down around 10% over the past decade, but this average trend hides a larger trend: African-American imprisonment is down substantially.

As Chuck Lane and I break it down in Washington Post, the African-American male rate is now at a 26.5 year low and the African-American female rate is now at a 30 year low. More details here.