Caught in the Ideological Crossfire

January 13, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The Baltimore-based police drama ''Homicide'' is back on network television for a four-episode run, and not everyone seems happy about that.

Locally, there's unease in the image-polishing community. In Maryland, we all know that Baltimore has become one of the murder capitals of the nation, if not the world. In 1993 it had a homicide every 24 hours and 47 minutes. But those concerned with attracting tourists, conventions and corporations to the neighborhood would just as soon not have the entire nation reminded of this civic achievement for four Thursdays in a row at prime time.

TV critics aren't paid to fret about Baltimore's reputation, and they still seem to like the show, which is produced by Baltimorean Barry Levinson. This year's episodes retain the unconventional approach -- bloodshed never takes place on camera -- and bleak cop-shop reality that reviewers liked. The dingy urban sets, while identifiably Baltimore, could be in any of a hundred sad American cities. The script is brisk and the acting sometimes very moving.

Yet two of my favorite columnists, Dan Rodricks of The Sun and Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal, aren't at all happy with ''Homicide.'' They opened fire on it last week from ideological positions about 180 degrees apart. They raised points that go far beyond this particular television program and are worth developing further. To review:

In the opening 1994 episode of ''Homicide,'' a white woman from Iowa, walking in broad daylight on the streets of downtown Baltimore with her husband and two young children, is shot and killed. Her assailants are three young black men. The motive appears to be robbery; she is shot when she refuses to hand over a locket. Such a crime is inevitably politically volatile, and there's more than a touch of cynicism in the energetic police response.

Already, the program has lost Dan Rodricks, who is offended because it fictionalizes, and in his eyes trivializes, the real-life blood being shed daily on the streets of the city. And he is offended further by the racial nature of the fictional crime, which he sees as ''contrived to exploit white suburban fear of predominantly black cities.''

But let's go on. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Journal looks at this episode from the other side. She is offended not by the murder, but by what she sees as the script's craven effort -- ''socially redeeming mendacity,'' she calls it -- to resolve the crime in a politically correct but intellectually dishonest way.

This is because the young black trigger man, who is soon arrested, is portrayed as a human being propelled into the wrong place at the wrong time by circumstance, by background and by the fatal chemistry of his own contradictory impulses. That strikes Ms. Rabinowitz as poppycock. He's not a victim, he's vermin, I can almost hear her snort.

Some of these objections have merit. Yes, television's ''Homicide'' is fiction, although the book and newspaper series upon which it is based were high-quality journalism. Yes, most violent city crime is black on black, not black on white. Yes, it's hard in today's climate for Hollywood, when asked to show a teen-age black killer, to do so without making patronizing sociological apologies for him.

There are other objections. Robin Williams, as the husband of the murdered woman, moved me to tears. Yet is it really plausible that a 40-ish family man from Iowa, however much of an innocent, has never in his life even touched a firearm? I'd think it easier to find such a person in Ruxton, or even Bolton Hill.

Let all that go. This is good television, even -- perhaps oxymoronically -- important television. Moreover, if Barry Levinson had listened to Dan Rodricks and Dorothy Rabinowitz before producing it, it would have been of less consequence.

It's a hard fact that urban crime doesn't get the attention of the community at large until it spills out of the cesspool and washes over the undeniably innocent. As the drug dealers' bodies pile up in Baltimore's alleys, no one notices -- or if notice must be taken, it's hard to decide whether to yawn or to cheer.

But when a child dies in a crossfire, or an off-duty officer is killed trying to stop a holdup, or a parent is gunned down in front of his or her children, it's a different story altogether. Then people get angry, and wonder why their governments can't protect them, and why, when the killers are caught, what eventually happens to them bears no resemblance to an ordinary person's common-sense conception of justice.

This has nothing to do with race. White suburbanites who are afraid to go to Baltimore aren't afraid of black people, they're afraid of crime. To insist otherwise is as vicious, and as corrosive to the social fabric, as it is to insist that all blacks, or even all black criminals, are in some way subhuman.

''Homicide'' isn't perfect, but the ideological crossfire it's now passing through suggests that it's probably getting the fundamentals right. A lot of us will miss it when it's gone.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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