Crime without Bounds

September 11, 1992

The crime was so cruel, the suspects had to be segregated from other prisoners at the Howard County jail lest they be attacked themselves. The two men allegedly stole Pamela Basu's car on Tuesday with her baby inside and then dragged Mrs. Basu nearly two miles, while she dangled outside of the car. Her murder has ignited a firestorm of outrage, in the Savage area and across the nation.

A code of conduct exists even among criminals, police officials say, and this act of barbarity crossed that line. The horrific part to society is that this boundary of conduct is backsliding and criminals are becoming more brazen. Criminologists have long maintained that burglary is a crime in which the perpetrators would rather not confront the victim. Yet that is the only type of crime that has declined over the past decade, the FBI says. All manner of violent crime is up, indicating that people whose lives mean little enough to themselves have less regard for taking the lives of others.

"Carjacking" is the latest new criminal cancer, in which thieves steal cars with the owner present, as they did with Mrs. Basu. The owner gets killed if he or she resists -- and sometimes even if there is no resistance. Because the penal system has become too clogged to hold them, or because drugs have decayed all shred of civility, the criminals see no distinction between robbery and homicide.

New York has reported 1,000 carjackings in each of the last two years. Washington suffered 250 in the first eight months this year. Baltimore has been scarred, too. The family of Vitalis Pilius still mourns his loss at the hands of someone who stole his car in a downtown garage, abducted him and later beat him to death. That crime and other carjackings for which Dontay Carter has been accused sent a cloud of fear over this region last winter, and led to shake-ups in the State Police and Motor Vehicle Administration. Yet this isn't only an urban problem, as the Basu case points out. Just last week, a man had his sports car taken from him at gunpoint while pumping gas across the street from the bustling Maryland State Fair.

Within hours of her violent death, Mrs. Basu's case became a cause celebre among advocates for harsher car-theft penalties. Yesterday, a House subcommittee heard testimony on the Anti-Car Theft Bill of 1992, which would make armed carjacking a federal crime and require automakers to mark parts to discourage illegal resale.

Any plan to thwart car theft is laudable, but this bill would not have prevented Pam Basu's death. Her unarmed killers didn't want her sedan for parts. The fallout from the case, though, is that the public now has less appetite for civil liberties and a greater hunger for the death penalty.

Mrs. Basu's life was so full. Her research on anti-pollution devices helped clean our air. Her death may prompt society to seek out more effective ways to combat lawless elements in our midst.

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