Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Are we ever going to be ‘better than this’? | COMMENTARY

Investigators, and detectives with Baltimore Police Department stand among evidence including backpacks, strewn about at the scene of a fatal shooting of a student in Joseph E. Lee Park, just west of Patterson High Monday., March 6, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)

I no longer look at the killings of my fellow human beings in Baltimore as a Baltimore problem. On Monday, when police reported the fatal shooting of another teenage boy — this time in a park near Patterson High School — I didn’t look to blame the mayor or the police commissioner or the city schools or the parents or any of the other usual suspects.

This is us.


I feel the same way when there’s a mass shooting somewhere.

This is us. This is how we’ve left things.


We’re all responsible in some way — not for the particular act of violence, but for the disgraceful conditions that make such a waste of life possible. If you love your country, you don’t get to own just the good parts.

Laying blame down low, among the usual suspects, might seem satisfying, but it keeps us from looking at the much larger picture.

And the much larger picture is what everyone recognizes but hates to acknowledge in public — that the country is riddled with problems.

We need a generational reckoning, an acceptance of those facts and a commitment to build a society that strives toward the highest ideals in every aspect of life.

Isn’t that what we all want, a big nation that lives up to its big promise?

And yet, we just keep arguing about who or what’s to blame; we get sucked into petty partisanship instead of agreeing on logical answers to our problems. Case in point: Until last week, when the North Carolina legislature agreed to the expanded Medicaid provisions of Obamacare, 11 states had refused to accept the federal funding that would provide health insurance to millions of low-income citizens. Twelve years after the Affordable Care Act, 10 states still refuse Medicaid expansion out of nothing but foolish spite.

Ask yourselves: At this stage, why haven’t we found a way to provide affordable health care for every single American? Why is there still resistance to such a fundamental need?

I don’t think we’ve come to grips with how broken American society is. We live with the threat of mass shootings. We tolerate a massive amount of guns, legal and illegal. You can blame the mayor, the police commissioner and the parents for the shooting death of another Baltimore high school student. But if you take the gun out of the equation, that boy probably would be alive today.


Or maybe, if the boy or the one who shot him had been at risk — meaning, living in a way that put them at risk of injury or death — then why didn’t we provide the resources (meaning, social workers or violence interrupters) to recognize that and intervene?

“Defund the police” is a bad choice of words, making it prime for mockery. But, a smart society accepts that we can no longer arrest our way out of violent crime and dysfunction, and that we should convert funds from law enforcement to social intervention and mental health.

Why don’t more public leaders support that logical transformation, and in a hurry?

Why don’t we take a fraction of money from national defense (the Pentagon budget is more than $800 billion now) and use it for domestic stability? Why, for instance, does the Roca program, while showing early signs of success at preventing violence in Baltimore, have to go begging for funds?

Why don’t we stick with things that work? Case in point: Operation Safe Kids. In 2006, three years after it had been established by the Baltimore Health Department to identify at-risk teenagers and prevent them from falling into crime or an early grave, the number of juveniles killed in the city dropped significantly, from 31 to 13. It was an intense program, with employees of several agencies tracking the kids day and night.

I’ve said it before: Baltimore needs a small army of social workers to get people who’ve been on the wrong track on the right track and save lives. The whole nation needs that kind of help.


We have more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths a year, and you can blame that on a lack of enforcement but, as always, that ignores the reality of the demand for fentanyl and other opiates. Why do so many Americans want these drugs? Why didn’t we build treatment hospitals instead of prisons? Why have we not taken the great moonshot against drug addiction?

We need multiple moonshots.

We should have weaned our way off fossil fuels decades ago. Instead, Americans still insist on two or three cars per family while grumbling about paying taxes to subsidize public transportation for others.

We went for years without recognizing the need for major investment in infrastructure. When things go wrong, what do we do? We point fingers, usually across political lines. What a waste of time and energy.

You can say we’re stuck: That we will never have a safer country because too many people love their guns, that we will never have harmony because there are too many bigots, that it’s too late to arrest climate change because we spent too long in denial, or that we’ll never see a more equitable society because the economic disparities are by now too wide.

But we can’t give up.


The late Rep. Elijah Cummings used to say, “We are better than this.” I still believe that, though just barely on days when another child dies from gunfire.