It’s summertime along our city’s top tourist thoroughfare, and you know what that means. The sun is shining and the bullets are flying.
The other day at 4:35 p.m., shots rang out from the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street. My colleagues looked out the windows of our eighth-floor offices to see the sidewalk of the avenue packed with scores of people fleeing to get out of a shooter’s range. There had been a street altercation, leaving one man wounded.
It was another day of mayhem in the corridor between Pike Place Market and the downtown shopping district. I don’t know of another major city where the scariest neighborhood is allowed to exist right in the middle of its tourist and commercial area. The unique spirit of Seattle, you say?
If so, then we need a spiritual explanation. In this secular city, do we dare look to the Bible for one?
As I know from working in a building at the epicenter of havoc, the corner of Pike Street and Third, the area is thronged by visitors eager to absorb the charms of a Northwestern me-tropolis. They mix uneasily with crowds of a different nature — hoodlums and drug addicts, grimly threatening youths and mentally disturbed loafers. Many are there to fight, shoplift or sell crack.
My coworkers trade eyewitness horror stories. A guy is knifed in broad daylight. Kids are seen pummeling a homeless man in the alley. Two women get into a punching and kicking fight outside Starbucks. One, with a baby in a carriage, loses the fight and her opponent kicks the carriage over, screaming baby and all. Then there is the verbal harassment, notably to passing women.
You could blame the city government, which fails to hire enough cops. Certainly, Third between Pike and Pine is woefully underpoliced, with a small knot of officers sometimes to be seen huddled together, like U.N. peacekeepers and about as effective.
But officials in City Hall were not imposed on Seattleites against the collective will. Their spirit represents that of many Seattle residents, who tolerate what hardly any other big city would accept. Why?
For years, I have been conducting the experiment of trying to better understand social and political issues by applying the wisdom of a book that inspired the founding of our country — the Bible.
Scripture’s wisdom is summarized in the Ten Commandments. When I walk out the door of our office building, I see ready evidence of the crumbling of traditional authority epitomized by those 10 majestic statements about moral reality.
The commandments on the first tablet describe a proper relationship to God. The commandments on the second tablet describe the kind of relationship we should have with other people. The most basic insight of the Decalogue, as illuminated by a millennia-old biblical interpretive tradition, teaches that the commandments on the first tablet bear an if-then relationship to those on the second.
If a society cultivates serious ideas about God, then it will insist on respectful interactions between its citizens. By the same token, vapid ideas about religion produce vapid ideas about morality.
Seattle, a beautiful and gentle place in many ways, finds itself unable to straighten its spine and clean up this notorious neighborhood. If the Ten Commandments are right in what they imply, that spinal degeneration may be traced to secularism.
You could hardly find a bluer city, where people have dogs instead of children. Indeed, the whole Pacific Northwest ranks as the country’s most secular, unchurched region.
Yet, human beings seem unable to live without a behavioral code of some kind. Even in a secular society, they simply embrace another, bearing little relationship to the Ten Commandments. This code — not of morality, but of what I call the moral-esque — is no less particular about its commandments being observed than is the old moral system.
In Seattle, traditional ideas about behavior are replaced by a parallel but different moralesque code that strictly regulates things the old code would leave to personal discretion (smoking, recycling, eating trans fats), while feeling conflicted about other things that the traditional code is comfortable with and that are crucial to keeping public order (policing).
Seattleites take offense at a cigarette being lit on the street. But let shots be fired on the same sidewalk, and the outrage isn’t there.
Many of us would like to believe that religion is a purely private matter, without implications for how public life unfolds. Seattle, however, is the test case that would indicate otherwise.