Reno wants to return us to safer, brighter times

ROGER SIMON

August 04, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Janet Reno walked into the Great Hall of the Justice Department and stood in front of the "Hands-Up" statue.

The statue is supposed to be the "Spirit of Justice" lifting her arms in "exultation," but it actually looks as if she is the victim of a robbery in progress.

No matter. The statue, which is silver, gigantic and bare-breasted, was largely and mercifully hidden from view yesterday by a cut-out of a modern urban street scene:

It was night and people were casually strolling the streets in perfect safety and sitting in brightly lighted windows without fear of drawing sniper fire.

In other words, it was a fantasy.

But Reno's purpose was to lend her credibility to the notion that it someday could become a reality.

Attorney General Reno currently is the most popular member of the Clinton administration, vastly more popular than the president, who trails her by 20 to 30 points in some polls.

And in the list of words that comes to mind when you think of the Justice Department -- Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lani Guinier, Waco -- Reno's is the bright shining name.

So she stood in the Great Hall next to movie actor-writer-director Robert Townsend to lend her star power to yesterday's National dTC Night Out, in which people were supposed to turn on their lights, sit on their porches, walk the streets and, in general, not get mugged.

Now in its 10th year, the event is jointly sponsored by the Justice Department, a home security company and a light bulb manufacturer.

It is an attempt, according to Matt Peskin, the national coordinator, to "turn the clock back 40 or 50 years" to when "neighborhoods were safer because neighbors knew neighbors, people routinely looked out for one another, and everyone knew the cop on the beat."

And while things were never quite as simple as that, trying to return to an earlier, safer period of American life is not some fanciful yearning for a time that never was.

The quarter-century that followed the end of Prohibition in 1933 was one in which Americans did feel reasonably safe. The death rate from homicides dropped 50 percent between 1933 and the early 1940s, and rape, robbery, assault and burglary declined by one-third.

There were at least three reasons:

* The Great Depression created a sense of shared hard times and a feeling of national community.

* Franklin Roosevelt's inspiring leadership made previously excluded groups feel as if they had a stake in the future of American society.

* World War II gave Americans a sense of unity and purpose.

The trick today, however, is to re-create those feelings without the Depression, Roosevelt or the war.

"In some dimension, America has become too big," Reno said in a brief speech that had been billed as "major" but really wasn't. "Things have gotten so big that people feel sometimes too small to do anything about it. In this decade, we've got to change that feeling."

Reno said she wanted the huge federal government to start "listening to the community." She also wants the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor and Justice to work "together as one in working with the communities to build a partnership that can enable our children to grow up as strong, constructive human beings."

"As we fight crime in America, we have got to join together -- the federal government and the states, the people in government, Republicans and Democrats, children and adults," Reno said.

She offered few specifics except to say: "A police department can't go roaring into a community and say, 'We know best.' The good police department that goes into a community will say, 'Hi. We want to work with you.' "

Reno concluded by saying: "Attorney generals, police officers are no different than a person and all of us have got to look at our roles as people, as neighbors, as family members and reach out and care for each other."

She would be the first to admit, however, that while that is an easy concept to grasp and while we did it once upon a time, it will be quite a trick to achieve it today in an America as fragmented as ours.

In introducing Reno, Robert Townsend, who plays a super hero in his latest movie, referred to her as "Wonder Woman."

And to achieve what she wants, Janet Reno just might have to be.

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