YOU CAN confront subway riders in New York and utter, "Hitler should have finished off the Jews" or, "All blacks should be shipped back to Africa."
However, if you ask, "Brother can you spare a dime?" you are subject to arrest. Like many other cities across the land, New York is becoming tougher and meaner toward its homeless population. Atlanta, preparing for the 1996 summer Olympics, passed a law allowing police to arrest those loitering in abandoned buildings and practicing "aggressive panhandling." The District of Columbia plans to cut by half its beds for the homeless. And Santa Barbara, Calif., relegates the homeless sleeping in public to a lot away from downtown shops.
Those who seek to push the homeless out of sight, if not drive them out of town, argue that they harass or threaten passersby and prevent tax-paying citizens from using public spaces. How, they ask, can children enjoy the parks if they are full of men who are half drugged or half drunk and relieve themselves in most inappropriate places?
If these were the real issues, city authorities could fight the offenses without passing new regulations that single out a category of people. There are sufficient laws on the books to deal with people who threaten or harass others or who violate public spaces. These laws apply to one and all. If necessary, penalties could be increased. However, such a non-discriminatory approach would mean that a prohibition on harassment would be applied not just to the homeless, but also to construction workers, who rarely let an attractive woman pass without offering verbal abuse.
And the parks would have to be cleared not only of people without homes, but of couples who make out in broad daylight. And fraternity boys who urinate on the sides of campus buildings after a beer bash would be treated like common winos.
Singling out the homeless for new restrictions reveals what is really afoot. For a while, the homeless bothered our national conscience. They were "a blot on the richest nation in the world."
But as attempts to deal with the homeless have failed (the shelters we offer to many of them are so abusive that they would rather risk the open spaces), they have become an increasingly irritating symbol of our indifference and of our impotent public policy. Now large segments of the public insist that the homeless be pushed out of sight -- not because we cannot cope with those who are violent or otherwise abusive, but because we do not want any of them around to remind us of their misery and our failure.
There is little reason to believe the public will become kinder and gentler in the near future. There are few stronger sociological prescriptions for making people tougher and meaner than a stagnant standard of living. While we may crawl out of the current recession, most Americans will have to continue to work longer and harder to make ends meet and to pay for the indulgences of the 1980s.
As a rule, only members of societies whose economies are thriving are willing to share their bounty. Moreover, when economic conditions are tight and societies are beset with internal friction, people look for scapegoats.
We can already see where the tougher and meaner society is headed next. Cities that until recently provided social services to illegal immigrants are now trying to enforce regulations that sharply curtail such help. And despite exhortations to the contrary, polls show that more and more Americans blame the Japanese for our problems.
Until economic conditions and the social climate significantly improve, kindness and gentleness will be in short supply. We need hence to remind one another that the homeless are, by and large, our creation and that it is a gross violation of our legal and moral traditions to go after "undesirable" people rather than unacceptable acts; that the flow of immigrants may need to be slowed, but that those who are allowed to remain here are to be treated as fellow human beings; and that if we blame the Japanese for all that ails us, we will simply delay our understanding of what went wrong and what must be done to right it.
Amitai Etzioni teaches at George Washington University. He is the author of "The Moral Dimension."