I was born in Seattle. My parents are University of Washington Huskies. My wife and I are Huskies. Our family, with four young children, lived downtown for more than a decade. I also serve as a pastor of a downtown church. We love our city. We hope to invest our entire lives here. However, our city is slowly losing its moral bearings.
Seattle is a city of wonderful compassion. But it has forgotten that compassion not only says “yes,” it also says “no.” Every loving parent — or, in the case of our city, dog owner — understands this.
In our city, crime is up. Gun violence is up. Homicides are up. Brazen daytime shoplifting is up. Addiction is up. Homeless encampments are up. Abandoned cars and graffiti are up. It is important to ask why.
As with anything, there are a multitude of factors that create a complex knot that is difficult to untangle. It is overly simplistic to elevate one of them, like COVID-19 or policing or racial disparities, and posit that this is the defining issue. Simplistic solutions fail because they don’t take the full breadth of factors into account.
But, nonetheless, one of the powerful unchallenged assumptions underlying much of the decision-making of Seattle’s leadership seems to be that compassion most often, if not always, says “yes.”
Yes, you may traffick young women on Aurora Avenue North day and night. Yes, you may live in tented squalor and leave your needle-ridden refuse wherever you want. Yes, you may rob businesses, big and small, without being held accountable. Yes, you may walk naked downtown high on drugs while terrorizing citizens. Yes, you may abandon your car wherever you like.
On the one hand, “Seattle compassion” is wonderful because it recognizes that those who make such decisions are doing so from a place of real hardship. This is tragically true. No one chooses to grow up in broken homes. Few aim to live on a street median. Few hope that shoplifting and addiction become their life vocations.
So, “Seattle compassion” says “yes” we will help you, and the shape of that help is usually in the shape of a “yes.” Yes, we will house you. Yes, we will feed you. Yes, we will give you free legal and dental services. Yes, we will give you a phone. Yes, we will give you a counselor. And, most significantly, yes, you can continue to do what you are doing without accountability. Seattle is called Freeattle on the street for a reason.
Yet, on the other hand, this makes “Seattle compassion” one-sided. It doesn’t say “no,” and that is its Achilles heel.
Compassion that only says “yes” is no longer compassion but well-intentioned enabling. When the default response is “yes” to immoral and destructive behavior, it affirms and encourages those individuals in their path, which makes their lives worse, not better.
I see this up close every day. I am well acquainted with the street culture. I have walked closely with the homeless and those walking out of addiction. People have moral agency and must be held accountable for the decisions they make. Such accountability is compassion.
It says, “It is not OK to live that way. If you do, you will hurt yourself and others. Let us help you by saying no.” It is not compassionate to allow young women to get trafficked in broad daylight because the Seattle Police Department is underfunded. It is not compassionate to allow people to live in tented squalor in public spaces. It is not compassionate to allow for unmitigated shoplifting.
Such faux-compassion says, “We don’t love you enough to stop you in this course of action that will ruin your life, hurt others and deteriorate the social fabric of our city. Go ahead.”
People have moral agency, but we seem to have lost sight of this. Compassion says yes — and no.