Golden Gate Bridge - photo courtesy of newamericamedia.org
A friend recently sent a text from Vietnam full of trepidation. In the wake of the Orlando massacre, and with ISIS now threatening San Francisco, he was having second thoughts about visiting the city.
“With all the violence,” he wrote, “is it still safe to come?”
To which, I would respond, “How much more violent can it be?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 33,636 deaths due to "Injury by firearm” each year. In 2010, the number of firearm injuries was 73,505.
The numbers are so alarming that California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has launched a Twitterstorm chronicling incidents of gun violence nationwide over a 72 hour period.
The fact is gun violence dramatically dwarfs the number of Americans killed by terrorists on our own soil. According to The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, “3,066 Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks from September 11, 2001 through December 31, 2014.” Of these, 2,902 occurred during the World Trade Center attacks.
At this rate it would take 140 years for terrorism-related deaths to equal one year’s worth of firearm related deaths.
As for the two wars we currently wage overseas? Total U.S. casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 is 9,324. That’s about four months’ worth of American lives taken in one year by gun violence.
Reports of mass shootings, meanwhile, are an increasingly common occurrence, with the rate having tripled since 2011, according to one Harvard study.
To live in America these days is to accept a new set of norms. As we ratchet up fears of a potential terrorist attack, lending support to politicians who bend that fear toward a growing xenophobia, we have otherwise become inured to homegrown violence.
“Are you scared of a terrorist attack?” I asked a friend who told me of his experience being shot at while waiting for a bus in Oakland. “Hell no,” he laughed. “I’m more afraid of drive-by shootings, random violence, and being audited by the IRS.”
The new norm in America?
Instead of learning to duck and cover in case of a nuclear attack – a familiar ritual for all U.S. students during the Cold War years – this generation of Americans practices what to do in order to survive when a gunman bursts in.
All of this as the impasse in Congress over gun control reform persists, leaving would-be killers like Omar Mateen, the gunman who claimed dozens of lives in Orlando, free to purchase the kind of weaponry one normally associates with a battlefield.
And San Francisco, a gay mecca famed worldwide for its tolerance and high tech wealth, isn’t immune from the violence.
The city today is beset by challenges; including a precipitous divide between the obscenely rich and desperately poor, and a homeless epidemic that elected officials say is at crisis levels. Not long ago a homeless man was tortured for three days before being drowned in a lake in Golden Gate Park. Another individual was set on fire.
Meanwhile, those charged with public protection are increasingly seen by the city’s embattled working class communities of color as the perpetrators of violence themselves.
In March, a largely white, all-suburban jury cleared San Francisco police officers of using excessive force when they killed 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto as he strolled, hands in his pockets, through the city’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. The verdict only added salt to wounds left by the police killing of African-American Mario Woods, 26, last December. No one was charged in that case either.
The stories of police brutality prompted a 17-day hunger strike by protesters and a serious examination of use-of-force tactics by SFPD.
So given the daily violence in America and in San Francisco itself, forgive me if I offer up a shrug to the news that ISIS is coming. Can it possibly do more damage than what we have already done to ourselves?
This article by Andrew Lam is reprinted from New America Media. Lam is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a colelction of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “ “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflecitons on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”