And now . . . carjacking

Glenn McNatt

September 15, 1992|By Glenn McNatt

THE "Motown sound," the Model-T and the Cadillac: Al originated in Detroit and were copied elsewhere. But Detroit also was a pioneer in carjacking, a terrifying crime that has become Topic A in Baltimore and Washington following at least six incidents in the past week, two of them resulting in death.

Carjackings have become commonplace in Detroit. In fact, one of my relatives was a victim last year. She had just gotten into her car parked in the lot outside the neighborhood supermarket, when a man suddenly opened the unlocked passenger side door and jumped into the seat next to her.

She screamed, but he grabbed her and shook her so hard the cry died in her throat. First he took her pocketbook. She thought he would either run off then or push her out of the car and drive away. Instead, he ordered her to drive out of the lot into the late afternoon rush-hour traffic.

As she drove, he directed her to turn first this way and then that. It was soon apparent that he was guiding the car away from well-traveled roads. She is a tiny woman, the mother of three young children. Terrified, she realized her attacker was not going to be content with merely robbing her.

Finally, another car approached about half a mile ahead. My relative made a decision: She swerved into the opposite lane heading straight for the oncoming car. The man shouted for her to stop, but she kept on going; a few seconds later she sideswiped the other car, bringing both vehicles to a halt.

Her assailant darted out the passenger door and disappeared into the woods. She ran to the other car and begged the couple in it for help. They drove her to their house and called the police. Fortunately, she managed to escape serious physical injury.

I cite my relative's ordeal, which she described to me earlier this year during a visit to Washington, as an illustration of how pervasive this form of violent and seemingly random assault has become. She even expressed surprise that East Coast residents were still relatively unaware of carjacking as a fact of life in metropolitan areas.

In the few months since then, of course, we have been rudely awakened to the reality of carjacking.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this new menace. Last week Congress began considering legislation that would make carjacking a federal crime, but there is little likelihood the measure will deter would-be offenders. A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times reported that the prospect of jail holds little terror for today's violent criminals, many of whom have been hardened at an early age by the rough justice of the streets and who actually look forward to a term in prison as a kind of late adolescent rite of passage.

The middle classes -- both black and white -- fled the cities partly in order to escape just the sort of problem that is now popping up in their manicured suburban enclaves. Somehow these people imagined that the pent-up fury, hopelessness and despair of the ghettos could be contained within the arbitrary boundaries separating city from suburb.

That was always a delusion, and like most delusions involving race and class in this country, it has had tragic consequences both for those who embraced it and for the generation of young people it consigned to the moral and economic oblivion of the nation's inner cities.

White America created the ghetto and tolerates it still. Many whites remain comfortable in the belief that the American Dream was never truly intended for people with darker skins. In the pungent phrase of the late Malcolm X, what we are now witnessing is a case of the chickens finally coming home to roost.

Over the long term there might be hope for a solution if people of the black and white middle classes could agree on a program aimed at ending the misery of the ghettoes. One reason they cannot is that so many whites remain wedded to the idea that the answer lies with the criminal justice system, which blacks of all social classes still regard with suspicion.

Middle-class blacks like my relative, for example, are appalled by the brutality of much urban street crime, of which they remain the most frequent victims. Yet their own experience of institutional racism has led them to distrust a system that seems to disproportionately target young African-American males, who are as likely to be their own children as the offspring of the poor.

"Build more jails!" a Baltimore radio talk-show host shouted yesterday morning during a discussion of carjackings. But as a practical matter, we can never build enough jails to contain the problem that America's malign neglect of the inner cities has created. The problem remains much larger than most Americans are yet willing to acknowledge. It is partly economic, but by now it has become a moral and spiritual crisis as well. It will only end when the ghetto, and America's perverse need for all it represents, also are ended.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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