Opinion | It Would Be Foolish to Ignore What Just Happened in Chicago

Bret Stephens: Gail, the biggest political news from last week was the resounding defeat of the mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, in the primary. Your thoughts on her political downfall?

Gail Collins: Well, running Chicago is a very tough job in the best of times, and Mayor Lightfoot was stuck doing it in the pandemic era.

Bret: Hmmm …

Gail: OK, that was my best shot at defending her. She was a huge disappointment — in a place like Chicago, you expect the mayor to get into a lot of fights, but she seemed to pick a new one every hour.

If you’ve got a city beset by crime and economic problems, any incumbent mayor would need a great plan and a whole lot of emotional connection to the average voter to deserve another term. None of that there.

What’s your opinion?

Bret: Every thriving city needs to get two basic things right: It has to be safe for people and safe for commerce. Under Lightfoot, homicides, carjackings and shoplifting skyrocketed, and businesses fled the city. Nearly a third of Michigan Avenue’s retail space is vacant. Boeing decided to move its headquarters out of the city. When the McDonald’s C.E.O. complained about crime, Lightfoot scolded him. So I’m glad Chicago voters had the good sense to give her the boot. I just hope they also have the good sense to go with the centrist Paul Vallas in the runoff election instead of his opponent, Brandon Johnson, who may be even further to the left than Lightweight — er, Lightfoot.

Gail: We’re gonna have more to discuss on that point.

Bret: The election will also have national implications, Gail. Notice that President Biden has said he won’t veto a bill in Congress that would reverse a District of Columbia law that lightened sentences for various felonies. Higher crime rates are going to dog Democratic candidates everywhere until they start to get as tough on the issue as they were when Biden was in the Senate, promoting the federal crime bill.

Gail: Doubt there’s a Democrat in America who isn’t sensitive to the crime issue now. But as we follow this story, just want to leave you now with one thought: Getting tough on lawbreakers is not enough to make a great chief executive. Nearly. Remember Rudy Giuliani.

Bret: A highly successful mayor who brought down crime, made the city livable again and was endorsed in 1997 for a second term by the editorial board of … The New York Times. Granted, it’s a shame about the rest of his career.

Gail: Now Bret, here’s a change of subject for you. Masks! Been so eager to converse about your anti-mask column the other day. Eager in part because people keep stopping me on the street and yelping: “Bret! Masks!”

Bret: Oh, yeah. I’m aware.

Just to be clear, Gail, my column was not against masks per se. It was anti-mask mandates as an effective means of curbing communitywide spread. Masks can obviously work in tightly controlled settings, like operating rooms. People who correctly wore high-quality masks probably protected themselves and others, at least if they never removed them in public.

Gail: Go on …

Bret: But the mandates didn’t work, and it’s not just on account of the recent Cochrane analysis that I cited in my column. Our Times colleague David Leonhardt came to basically the same conclusion last year based on U.S. data. What can work at the individual level can, and often does, totally fail at the collective level.

It’s also common sense. If you’re required to wear a mask on an airplane but allowed to take it off to eat or drink, the requirement becomes useless. If you’re supposed to wear a mask while walking to a table at a restaurant but not when sitting down, it’s useless. If you’re supposed to wear a mask but nobody is very concerned about whether it’s an N95 or a cloth mask, it’s useless.

Gail: “Less useful” yeah. But my understanding has always been that the masks aren’t as important for protecting the healthy as they are critical for keeping people who are already infected from spreading germs to others.

Those folks are going to go out sometimes whether we like it or not, and if they’re the only ones who have to wear masks, it’s like a walking declaration of disease — ringing a bell to warn that the leper is coming.

Make sense? Why do I suspect I haven’t persuaded you?

Bret: Human nature. People who are infected but don’t know it will be no better about wearing masks properly than anyone else. People who are infected, know it and irresponsibly walk around with the disease are probably not going to be responsible mask-wearers, either.

There’s also the fact that, in a culture like America’s, there was never a chance we’d get the kind of compliance we need to make a real difference. Maybe in China, which could be draconian in its enforcement, but I don’t think any of us would have wanted that here.

Bottom line, the government would have been wiser telling people: If you are immunocompromised or you have a potential comorbidity like obesity or diabetes, please wear N95 masks at all times in public. If you aren’t, please be respectful of those who do wear them.

Gail: Not necessarily. One of the things that struck me when mask wearing began was how it kinda defined community. Folks declaring solidarity with their fellow citizens in joining together to fight a common battle.

Bret: To me, the lesson was the opposite. Many of the people who were most emphatic in their belief in mask wearing — particularly those with media bullhorns — worked the sorts of jobs that didn’t require them to wear masks all their working hours. Not like waiters or store clerks or Uber drivers who had to wear them 8, 10, 12 hours a day, and sometimes wound up with cold sores in their mouths. The mandates didn’t just polarize us politically, they also exacerbated class divides.

Gail: I got into the habit of telling Uber drivers to feel free to take off the mask. Most of them didn’t, which made me presume they were voluntarily protecting themselves against the passengers.

Bret: Gail, you scofflaw!

Gail: But on to another topic entirely — the Murdaugh murder trial! I have to say when you spend most of your life listening to reports about political drama, a major murder trial reminds you how nondramatic that stuff can be.

Did you follow the case? I did and figured he’d be convicted. But I was shocked by how fast the jury came to a decision.

Bret: You and our colleague Farhad Manjoo, who looked at the case through a technological lens and offered a terrific, contrarian take on the trial. That said, from what I watched of the trial, Alex Murdaugh struck me as evil incarnate. My wife will probably kill me for saying this — er, so to speak — but while I can at least grasp how someone can murder a spouse, I simply can’t comprehend how anyone could murder his own child.

Gail: Yeah, but about the jury: I remember years and years ago, being a juror on a trial where the defendant had punched an old lady on a bus. In front of a lot of other people. Tons of testimony and the defendant himself — if I recall this correctly — took the stand to offer the excuse that he found the old lady really irritating.

Still, we deliberated for hours! Not because there was any doubt about what we were going to do. It just seemed to show respect for the process. And, maybe, to qualify for another excellent free courthouse lunch.

Bret: Spoken like a true journalist: Anything for a free lunch.

Gail, before we go, I hope all of our readers spend some time with Hannah Dreier’s moving and brilliantly rendered report on the thousands of migrant children, sometimes as young as 12, who came to this country alone and are now working grueling hours in factories, kitchens, construction sites, garment makers, slaughterhouses and sawmills trying to survive and sending what little extra money they have to help their families back home. It’s a powerful reminder that the migration crisis isn’t just happening at the southern border. In many ways, it’s just beginning there.

Gail: Bret, I love the way you point to the great work our colleagues are doing. Hannah’s reporting on the migrant children was heartbreaking. Politically, both sides agree there’s a terrible problem here in regulating both migration itself and what happens to people who arrive in hopes of creating better lives.

But do you see any hope — any at all — of their getting together on a solution? Even a partial one?

Bret: The problem shouldn’t be difficult to solve through compromise. Discipline and order at the border combined with compassion and aid toward those who are vulnerable and suffering. America has shown in the past that we can meet that challenge. We just need to muster the will to meet it again.

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