The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I used to run a police homicide unit. The rage behind so many of today’s murders feels new.

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Liz Thomson, a retired supervisor of the Albuquerque Police Department’s homicide unit, recently returned to the department as a cold-case investigator.

I’m all too familiar with homicide and its causes. The worsening murder rate today feels like a reflection of an alarming trend I have noticed over the past several years: The rage factor in these crimes is rising.

When I joined the Albuquerque Police Department as a 40-year-old rookie in 1999, my colleagues referred to me as “Cadet Nana.” You probably couldn’t get away with that today. Over the next 19 years, I moved up through the ranks, learning plenty along the way, and eventually headed our homicide unit.

Homicide was a tough assignment. I saw firsthand the scars that each murder leaves on a community, the damage that radiates from a single crime. Every death was a loss to Albuquerque, the city where I grew up and later raised my children.

Many of the murders were solved; some were not. Some of the murders prompted intense media coverage; some went almost unremarked. But I kept a list of every victim. By my retirement in 2017, it had grown to 240 names. Putting pen to paper had become a painful ritual: I was writing the names of people who would never write their names again, people killed on my watch.

Liz Thomson discusses this column in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

On retiring, I wanted to pay homage to them — all of them. I carried my list to Spain, to the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across the Iberian Peninsula. There, I walked hundreds of miles, stopping every kilometer or so to recite another name from my list.

Before cathedrals and vineyards, I called out the names of souls we found lying dead in their own driveways and bodies dumped in the street. I remembered. I made a memorial video of it. These people had been erased by criminals, but I wanted them to be recalled in beautiful, unexpected places.

I have since returned to the department as a civilian to work on cold cases. When I recently read how the U.S. murder rate has spiked, I wished I could say the FBI’s numbers were a surprise. I can’t. I used to report Albuquerque’s crime data to the feds. Murder stats have stories to tell. Some can mislead; some hold our thorniest truths.

A disturbing factor is the pure, irrational rage that seems increasingly to drive these grim numbers. Uncontrollable anger has always accounted for some murders, of course, but I’ve been struck in recent years by the greater role it plays in these cases.

By August, Albuquerque had already equaled its record for homicides with 81, set in 2019. In recent years, the data showed that inane, petty disputes increasingly sparked killings. People die over absurdities — dibs on a carwash stall, stolen weed, getting cut off in traffic or beer pong gone wrong. More and more, guns are likely to be involved: Nationally, the firearm homicide rate increased 26 percent between 2010 and 2019.

One dark thread winds through murder statistics. In part, it explains when ordinary, everyday irritation or resentment might turn to homicidal fury: Killers generally feel powerless over their circumstances. Having lost control over their lives, they may commit violence in an attempt to regain a semblance of it — and the ultimate exercise of control over life is taking someone else’s.

The pandemic no doubt exacerbated that sense of helplessness. A dangerous sense of lurking chaos has been in the air. Add to that the contemporary turn toward simple meanness online and in the media, with bullying often admired and nastiness rewarded. Death threats replace debate. Inch by inch, rage becomes the norm. In that poisonous atmosphere, tragedies are inevitable.

There are plenty of solutions perennially offered for combating the rise in violent crime: improved education, more opportunity, better social services. But those are big projects that would take years, decades, to have an impact. They also don’t speak to what individual people can do. One thing each of us can contribute is consciously working to lower the social rage level. Try to make empathy and compassion a reflex and not instant anger at anyone who has offended you online or in the real world. If a rage culture has been created, it can also be rolled back.

It would also help if everyone — law enforcement, the helping professions, lawmakers, the media, the general public — looked on every loss of life as a tragedy. Not just the sympathetic victim in a widely publicized case, but also those who lead troubled lives and whose passing is hardly noted. Every victim was somebody’s son or daughter, sister or brother, friend or neighbor. Remember that.

Liz Thomson discusses this column in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.