Isolated, random crime makes all of us vulnerable

Dan Rodricks

September 16, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

The carjacking death of Pamela Basu -- more important, th reaction to it -- made me think of a sermon I heard out in Taneytown in Carroll County, about 9 1/2 years ago.

It was a splendid day in May 1983 when a woman was abducted by two men after they robbed a drugstore where she had been a clerk. The drugstore was in downtown Taneytown. Things like that just didn't happen in Taneytown, or Carroll County for that matter, and you can imagine how shocked everyone was, including the young chief of police.

Taneytown was and still is a quiet place, about 50 miles northwest of Baltimore. The realization that two men could show up in a town and kidnap a woman out of a store left the people of Taneytown feeling invaded, vulnerable . . . way out there.

I went to a church service on the Sunday following the abduction. The Rev. Thomas Searfoss, at the time pastor of Messiah United Methodist Church, tried to console worshipers with a sermon he had taken great care to prepare. Today, such a sermon might be considered "politically incorrect." The pastor tried to give a grander context to what many in Taneytown took comfort in perceiving as an isolated crime.

"Yes," Searfoss said, "what happens to another affects us. And yes, it can happen to us. And when it happens to others, it also happens to us. [The abduction] reminds us of how close trauma and tragedy are to us. And [it] once again reminds us that what happens in Baltimore . . . happens also to us. We are not an island, entire of ourselves. The bell tolls for us. Crime, in all its infamous variety; the vile conditions of mind and circumstance that give it genesis; the innocent who pay with physical and psychic scars unerasable -- all these happen to us, whether they occur at a small pharmacy on York Street, Taneytown . . . or in Baltimore City. They happen to us. They are crimes against you and me. We are not islands separate from the human continent."

Those were challenging words. I have recalled them many times in the years since the pastor first spoke them. I thought of them after the murder of Pamela Basu -- and the reaction to it.

The Basu homicide carried shock even more profound than the Taneytown abduction.

The way Mrs. Basu died was incredibly horrific. It involved a new form of crime (carjacking) that makes everyone who owns and operates an automobile feel vulnerable. And it occurred in Howard County, which, though not as rural as Carroll County, is not generally known for having a chronic problem with violent crime.

There are a lot of things, then, contributing to the roars of outrage, the reactions of the governor and other public officials and the cries for the death penalty being heard in the week after Mrs. Basu's death. The randomness of the violence -- that such a crime could occur where it's not supposed to -- is what frightens us, angers us, makes us want to scream.

This is especially true of those of us who live in the suburbs.

Forget that the Basu killing was connected to a hijacking. Forget that the way Basu died was -- if you feel qualified to assess such things -- more brutal than the way most homicide victims die. If you live in the suburbs, the real source of your anger is the threat you now perceive and feel. Criminals aren't supposed to walk up to cars and take them while the drivers are sitting in them. And, more to the point, they aren't supposed to commit such acts of physical and emotional violence in places like Columbia, Owings Mills or Cockeysville. Crime -- this crazy, random style -- is supposed to stay in the city.

"You know why people read crime stories in the newspaper?" an old newspaper reporter once told me. "So they'll remember why they live in the suburbs."

I never argued the point.

Over the last two decades, as crime became increasingly violent and random, more people moved out of cities. And while the suburbs prospered, the city became poorer and poorer, its middle class became smaller, its tax base cracked, its prisons filled up with criminals. Baltimore is now a place thousands of people visit every day and leave every night. We have jobs here. Or we come for the restaurants, the museums, Harborplace, or )) the Orioles. People in the suburbs use Baltimore -- or one half of PTC Baltimore -- then go home.

The part of Baltimore suburbanites don't know -- and probably don't want to know -- is the poor, drug-infested, violent city where thousands of people live. Suburbanites know this Baltimore mostly from television news stories reporting homicides. Presented that way, it seems safely distant. In fact, after a while, we even taken comfort in knowing that, as bad and as brutal as life in America is today, it's Not In My Back Yard.

And that's what counts.

That's why we live where we live. Thousands of us choose to raise our kids in the suburbs. We don't want them growing anywhere near the hard, brutal edge of the city. We can afford to raise them elsewhere, so we do it -- in increasing numbers.

I'm not knocking it. It's part of the natural order of American society today.

The reaction to the Basu killing, including the governor's sudden call for a crime strike force, has occurred because more suburbanites, middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers who are a powerful force in state and national politics, suddenly feel threatened. The problems of the city (Washington or Baltimore) have spilled into the suburbs, and the Basu homicide dramatizes the point.

"There are two ways to solve these problems," I once heard someone say. "Build bridges, or put up fences."

Wiser men than I, including a Methodist minister in Taneytown, have warned against constructing fences and ignoring the human problems that, left to fester in the cities, drag down our society, no matter how strong or progressive it becomes, and haunt us, no matter where we live.

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