Crime and contradictions

Russell Baker

November 11, 1993|By Russell Baker

AMERICANS love crime in movies, television and books, but gibber and quake when it walks their streets. This is one of many contradictions that confuse efforts to reduce crime.

A nation hooked on violent entertainment can hardly be expected to give it up because it just may happen to provide insensitivity training for children, can it?

So reasons galore are adduced for not giving it up: It is not proven for sure that these entertainments do debase children. Even if it were proven, people who like being entertained with horrific violence are entitled to a steady supply. What's more, the First Amendment says you can't curtail or suppress it.

In a world less in love with racket and its own crudity than ours, problems like this would be dealt with through civil compromise. The entertainment industry, exercising a minimal level of good taste apparently inconceivable today, would voluntarily dampen the blood ardor of its most barbaric writers, directors and producers.

Its boardroom titans, while adhering to the sacred nature of the profit motive, would nevertheless recognize certain limited civic obligations to their community, and personal obligations to their own families and to their own self-respect, even at the risk of slight reductions in box-office take.

None of this will happen. We are probably so far gone in the conviction that civility is for creeps, that boors finish first and that there is no difference between liberty and making a mess that it will seem childish to suggest that a little self-restraint may often do more than the Supreme Court can.

So we have the contradiction between our own lust for synthetic crime and our terror of the real thing. There are also contradictory political impulses, as illustrated in last week's voting in the states of Virginia and Washington.

Each voted, in its own way, to keep more felons in prison. Washington people voted to punish three-time offenders with eternal imprisonment. Virginians elected a new governor whose TV commercials promised he would do away with parole.

All well and good, but expensive. In both states voters would seem -- but only to a complete foreigner -- to have been voting for more government spending, since new prison construction and higher prisoner-maintenance costs would seem to be the inevitable result of this particular solution to the crime problem.

Actually, as every politician knows, Virginians and Washingtonians were not voting for more government spending, because, as every politician, not to mention every living American knows, the American voter hates government spending unless it redounds directly to his personal benefit.

In fact, the new spending that will be needed to put these two policies into effect was not discussed above a whisper before Election Day. Moreover, it would be astonishing if it is ever seriously discussed again.

The electorate doesn't fancy being told that its favorite "solutions" for intractable problems are not cost-free. Politicians who want to survive naturally humor us by suggesting that new programs can be paid for by cutting down Old Devil Waste.

The contradiction here is between popular demand for muscular action against crime and popular distaste for paying for the muscle.

In all political efforts to deal with crime, there is also a contradiction between theory and reality. The old progressive belief that society breeds criminals has been battered by too much evidence that while prisons may be full of Jean Valjeans, there is also a deplorable percentage of human beings who are just no good and often dangerous.

While imprisoning these people is probably useless, in the absence of a better idea it at least keeps them off the streets until somebody can discover how to turn them into nice folks.

The contradiction here? On one side it lies in popular belief that certainty of punishment will restrain potential criminals from doing their worst. On the other side is the reality of, say, the appalling rise in murder rates since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment, which was once justified as a way to make potential killers think twice.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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