In September 1813, Andrew Jackson fought with Thomas and Jesse Benton in Nashville, Tenn., in a battle featuring a whip, pistols, and knives. Supposed slights had roused the prickly sense of honor of these men. No one would remember the circumstances today if the melee hadn't nearly cost the country the man who would become the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.
The days when an Andrew Jackson would exchange insults with an adversary in the buildup to a duel are forever gone. But senseless violence over questions of honor is still with us. Except that the fighters are less formal than they were in Jackson's day, and they become mere mortuary statistics rather than fodder for historians.
A report in the New York Times identifies a rise in urban violent crime attributable to "petty disputes that hardly seem the stuff of fist-fights, much less gunfire or stabbings." In Milwaukee, murders rose from 88 in 2004 to 122 last year, with 45 of them prompted by arguments, "by far the largest category of killings, as gang and drug murders declined." In Houston, homicides jumped by 24 percent in 2005, and "disputes were by far the largest category." In Philadelphia, there were 380 murders last year, the most since 1995, and 208 were disputes.
The Times reports that murder suspects explain their crimes as a response to being "disrespected" or subjected to "mean mugging" — literally being looked at the wrong way. According to the Times, "A man killed a neighbor whose 10-year-old son had mistakenly used his soap dish."
A case can be made that a direct line connects Andrew Jackson and today's urban youth. In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell argues that a "redneck culture" — including "touchy pride" and "boastful self-dramatization" — was carried to the south by settlers from the British Isles. This culture then embarked, along with the migration of southern blacks into the cities, on a strange journey: "It largely died out among both white and black Southerners, while still surviving today in the poorest and worst of the urban black ghettos."
Culture is enduring, but needn't be a death trap. Two factors can suppress the worst effects of this cultural tendency. The first is fathers. Unsurprisingly, a researcher in Milwaukee found that young murderers are often sons of teenage mothers. Without a father, boys will tend to have fragile egos and no impulse control. Throw in a blighted community and easy access to guns, and mayhem results.
The second is good government. Urban expert Fred Siegel says that many cities are "like a pressure cooker — if you don't manage it right, it will blow up." In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has preserved the intense policing practices of Rudy Giuliani, violent crime has continued to decline. The rise in murders is taking place in poorly governed urban areas like Milwaukee, St. Louis ,and Prince George's County, Md., outside of Washington, D.C.
The backdrop to all of this is the spectacular irrelevance of the civil-rights movement. The coverage of Coretta Scott King's funeral focused on whether it was seemly for the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil-rights pioneer, to take shots at President Bush over his Iraq policy. The real story is the failure of the civil-rights movement to create a new generation of leaders willing to address today's threats to urban America.
Cities beset by broken families, rage-killings, and corrupt, ineffectual governance suffer a mini-Katrina every day. Yet where are the uncompromising calls for the restoration of the black family and a new wave of vigorous, reformist urban government? Asked on Fox News Sunday what his solutions are to the problems of black America, the Rev. Lowery emphasized 30-year-old bromides. "Let's have more [government] programs," he suggested lamely.
The opposite of honor — a perverse version of which is driving the increase in murders — is shame. We should feel more of it when surveying our cities.