Lawless in the Streets, and Armed with BMWs

December 06, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- You see them coming several blocks back. Your rear-view mirror reveals cars driven with a nervous, jerking, lunging, spastic intensity, clinging to the bumpers of the cars ahead, weaving across lanes, rushing toward the next red light. Toward, and often right through.

The spreading lawlessness of drivers in Washington, and not only here, is more than a nuisance, although it is that: Traffic moves more slowly because prudent drivers hesitate to enter an intersection even after the light has turned green, so frequently are red lights disregarded.

And manic drivers are more than amusing, although as fools usually do, such drivers have a comic dimension: Even the most aggressive driving can cut but about 10 minutes from a 10-mile commute. Have they thought of leaving home 10 minutes earlier? Or are 10 minutes more abed really worth risking life, limb and driver's license?

Actually, lawless commuters face decreasing risks of arrest because police are increasingly preoccupied with the slow-motion riot that is life in the inner city. Thus do the lawless from suburbia benefit from the lawlessness of the urban criminal class. But let us not be judgmental.

Instead, let us be advanced thinkers who study the increasingly, shall we say, interesting driving habits as evidence of America's increasing ''diversity,'' and as a flowering of new ''values.''

Let us begin anthropologically: Even if this new lawlessness is just fallen humanity misbehaving again, why now, and why this way? What has happened to other ways of venting pent-up aggressiveness, like fighting Redcoats, clearing forests or watching football?

Lunatic driving in the evening may -- although I doubt it -- express an intense longing for hearth and home. But aggressiveness in the morning is mystifying: To what work are they rushing headlong? In Washington, often to government jobs, which in many cases means they are rushing to the `D sluggish river of paper that someday will result in some decision to which American society will be magnificently impervious. Perhaps the numbing everydayness of many people's work, in the private sector, too, explains the rip-roaring behavior behind the wheel going to and from.

Recently Joseph Epstein, the essayist and professor (of English, at Northwestern), put to me a startlingly simple question: ''Do you know anyone who makes anything?'' Mr. Epstein had recently met a man who makes pajamas. He was struck by the realization that it is rare for him to encounter anyone whose days are filled with making things -- things you can heft, hold up to the light, take to the cash register, take home, put to practical use.

Around campus most of the people Professor Epstein sees make seminars and lectures -- true, the occasional article and book, too, but it's somehow not the same, not as real, as pajamas. In Washington we make hearings, laws, litigation, lunch appointments and journalism. All of it is, of course, terrifically important, but perhaps the evanescence of it produces demented drivers. Just a thought.

Driving probably will become even wilder now that Christmas (in P.G. Wodehouse's words) has us by the throat. Holidays and homicide go together like eggnog and nutmeg, so 'tis the season to study the wildness in the streets. I have not noticed -- are we still allowed to notice? -- what nowadays are called ''gender differences.'' Men and women are equally represented among the demented drivers, which probably is heartening evidence of the emancipation of women. BMWs are disproportionately driven by red-light runners, but I make no judgments. (New York Times headline, Dec. 2, 1993: ''Impatient Driver Shoots Motorist for Moving too Slowly in Bronx.'' The shooter was driving a BMW.)

No judgments, so I will not dwell on the possibility that lawless driving by commuters from suburbia is of a piece with that inner-city behavior commonly called ''crime in the streets.'' Let others wonder whether lawless BMW drivers, like young predators in Nike hightops, represent the barbarian belief that they have a right to do what they like to do, and whether those drivers and those predators are all creating themselves in the way the writer Margaret Halsey meant when she said that ''identity is not found, the way Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the bulrushes. Identity is built. It is built every day and every minute throughout the day.''

However, here is a minimally judgmental thought.

Years ago, when Washington's Redskins were owned by Edward Bennett Williams, they had an unreliable kicker who, Williams said, ''had put the excitement back into the point after touchdown.'' In a well-functioning society, some things are supposed to be dull. Driving through an intersection, for example.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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