About a month before I left to go to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, a family friend had remarked, “Well, is that safe? I mean, with all those Muslims there and all. Will you be safe?” Though even at the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous question, I won’t pretend like there wasn’t some part of me in the back of my head going, “Well, I mean, is it safe? You don’t really know much of anything about this country.” What I did know about Muslims was, as I’ve said before, “driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.” Even with an education where I’d studied Islam in dialogue with other religions, I still found it difficult to shed the images I’d been sold about this religious group.
Eventually, I did shed that fear. Through my host mother, Fatima, whose first words and the only English she knew was, “I love you; you are my son;” through Hamza and Omar who danced with me late into the night or welcomed me to meals; through Driss whose English was arguably better than mine and who loved a spirited debate over mint tea; slowly, I was able to realize that not only did I have nothing to fear but, in fact, I had plenty to love about Morocco, about my Muslim brothers and sisters. I even felt safe enough to travel alone thirteen hours across the country multiple times and through just about all kinds of weather, day or night. Mind you, I probably shouldn’t have felt safe doing all of that. A certain one-eyed taxi driver, in fact, insisted on going over 120 km/hour in a sandstorm with zero visibility, and I’m still pretty sure either that or using butane gas to cook was probably the least safe thing I ever did in Morocco or maybe my whole life.
But now that I’m back home in Jackson, Tennessee, safe and sound in America and in a community I care about, that question from the family friend strikes me as especially odd and even off-putting. Was I safe in Morocco in a Muslim community where I was welcomed with intense hospitality? I certainly felt so. But are you safe in Jackson?
Recently, an article published by a California real-estate company listed Jackson as the third most dangerous “small city” in the nation. That went viral on Facebook and Twitter within the Jackson community and prompted the Jackson Sun to seek comment from both the Mayor’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce. Their response, by and large, was essentially to ask who is some California company to tell us how things look in Jackson (you can almost hear them exclaiming in Southern Drawl, “Calaforna!?”)? Both offices questioned the credibility of the report suggesting that the statistics were somehow overstated.
For fun, I decided to do a bit of a comparison and just see how the numbers spoke for themselves. I thought about comparing Jackson to Mos Eisley, but eveybody knows you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. So, instead, take a Moroccan city like Fes. Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Jackson at a population of just over a million. But Fes only had 37 homicides in 2013, compared with 11 for Jackson. That may not sound like many for either city, but it’s a rate of .17 per 1000 for Jackson versus .04 per 1000 for Fes. Fes is looking a lot safer per capita, as did all Moroccan cities I looked at. In fact, for Fes’s homicide rate to equal Jackson’s, you’d have to see 175 murders instead of 37. That would require of Fes a 79% increase in murders from one year to the next.
So, this isn’t looking too good for Jackson. But let’s look even closer at some of Jackson’s statistics: if you live in Jackson, you have a 1 in 68 chance of being a victim of violent crime. Compare that with 1 in 155 statewide and in 1 in 110 in New York City. That’s right, you’re more likely to be a victim of violence in Jackson than you are in the Big Apple. Not only New York, though. In fact, 96% of cities in the nation are safer per capita than Jackson is.
The thing is, Mayor Gist and the Chamber may well be right to suggest that the statistics are overstated. There are a lot of complex factors that contribute to crime rate, after all, and they’re certainly right to point out things like the Hub City’s location smack between Memphis and Nashville or directly on one of the busiest Interstates in the country (I would add that Jackson’s unemployment rate is at 9.6% compared with 7.3% nationwide; or that Jackson is filled with an even mix of white and blue collar professionals who are primarily “young, single, and upwardly mobile”). So, too, while the amount of violent crime in Morocco is significantly lower than Jackson or even all of America, I shouldn’t suggest that Morocco doesn’t come with its own set of issues. There’s far more likely to be a terrorist attack in Morocco than there is for one to happen in Jackson (although, if you considered gang violence as a form of terrorism, you might argue terrorism is a Jackson issue). And there’s a significant risk to females and foreigners, such that traveling at night across the Atlas Mountains would certainly be ill-advised, as it would be anywhere. Every city, every country, comes with its own set of complex factors that contribute to the problem of violent crime, and each of those places must come up with their own, unique solutions to those problems.
And yet, even if the statistics are overstated, Jackson has a very serious crime problem that neither the Mayor’s office nor the Chamber of Commerce nor local churches nor local citizens should ever be making excuses about or too quickly dismissing. Where are the people calling for and suggesting real solutions? Or, as someone who isn’t quite sure what the solutions might be, at least a real discussion, a conversation about how churches, citizens, the Chamber, or the Mayor’s office might take to task the crime before us lest it become the norm? As I see it, the Mayor and the Chamber are in the business of maintaining a positive perception, which is important to drawing companies and tourists to the area. But suggesting that Jackson’s crime rates are “normal for cities this size” in order to maintain that perception is risky business at the least. We live in a world where what social and news media tells us is all too easily the gospel truth when it’s backed up by our experiences or our preconceived notions. Yet, no more should we sell the perception of Jackson as a safe place than we should a Muslim country as one that’s filled with terrorists when in reality both have problems that need solutions beyond painting a pretty picture.