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.