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In life, there is no safe haven from violence
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 10:08 PM

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Originally published Jan. 11, 1993

In ancient times, our ancestors fled to the safety of caves to protect themselves from the dangers surrounding them.

Then they herded into communities and erected walls to keep out the evils.

Today, some would say, we move to the suburbs and hide behind picket fences.

"The suburbs are no strangers to violence," says Bernard Beck, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University. "We get some actual, newsworthy, sensational-type violence."

Yet, when tragedy pays a visit to the suburbs, the reaction is always one of utter shock that it could happen here.

It can, of course, as is evident by this weekend's grisly murder of seven at a fast-food restaurant in Palatine.

And by gang shootings and ax slayings and murder-for-hire plots and drug deals gone bad and little children raped and murdered and John Wayne Gacys and Laurie Danns and an assortment of heinous crimes that never fail to "shock" our communities.

"There's a paradox involved here," says urbanologist Pierre de Vise. "It's such an unusual crime, it makes the front page and the national news. Seven people murdered. This happens daily on Chicago's South or West Side."

The mere notion that we still can be stunned and surprised by gratuitous violence "should be a comfort to people who live in the suburbs," de Vise notes.

"The fact is, it is very much a surprise," says Beck. "They (suburbanites) are quite shocked and amazed. That tells you it's rather rare."

And much of the tension surrounding Friday's tragedy will ease if police determine that these seven murders were not entirely the result of random violence, de Vise adds.

Yet, people use these crimes as proof our suburbs are teeming with violence. We talk of evil and lament our inability to seek safety from it - even in the suburbs.

And while it may seem the suburbs are growing more violent, Beck says America has a long, long history of gruesome crimes.

"Ours is a violent and unruly society," Beck says. "Certainly today, without question, the United States is the most violent. Our laws allow greater freedom and access, and this fosters a fertile environment for violence.

"Our folklore still makes us respectful of the accomplishments of violence," Beck says. Violence is, quite simply, nothing new.

In his book "Wisconsin Death Trip," author Michael Lesy takes a detailed look at crime in rural Wisconsin from a century ago. Beck says the stories are "as bloody and bizarre as anything you would see coming out of the city of Chicago."

"Mass murder, insanity, adultery, bizarre killings" - they happen in cities, small towns and suburbs, Beck says.

"It's only that we haven't been paying attention and keeping score," Beck says. "Human life has always had its dangers."

And to avoid them, people flee. In our recent history, that means more and more people looking for a safe haven in the suburbs. Statistically speaking, that's a wise move.

"On the other hand, more than half the country lives in suburbs, and it's not going to be as safe as when you had a small group of people, usually very fortunate people," Beck notes.

"There has been a small movement to 'ex-urban' and even to move to rural areas," Beck adds. "Before too long, we'll find the same things happening there."

Yesterday's tragedy in Chicago is today's tragedy in Palatine is tomorrow's tragedy in Sleepy Hollow.

"Of course, it's distressing," de Vise says, rattling off a litany of suburban crimes worthy of "America's Most Wanted."

"But there's really no place to run to. These people can't run back to cities," de Vise says. "This kind of thing can happen anyplace. There is no place to hide.

"There is no place in the country that's safe if Palatine is not safe," he said, although he suggests Europe might be an alternative.

Even that is no guarantee.

"The reason there is no hiding place," Beck concludes, "is because we always bring ourselves along."