Living with Fear

January 19, 1994|By JAMES P. PINKERTON

NEW YORK — New York.--The attack on Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan reminds us that the most serious problem America faces is not mere crime, but fear -- fear of the lunacy lurking in the hearts of neighbors, co-workers and fellow passengers and spectators.

Americans are adapting to this fearful reality, but such adaptation accelerates the split between haves and have-nots. Those who can afford it have more physical safety; those who can't, don't.

Private money pays for a second tier of protection. This ''surrogate government'' works for those with the wherewithal to do it right: Every Whitney Houston will be safe with her own Kevin Costner, as in last year's film ''The Bodyguard.'' The rest of us are on our own.

In a recent issue, U.S. News & World Report estimates the total annual cost of crime in America as $674 billion. The largest items in that humongous total are economic: lost work and productivity. Total expenditures for police, judiciary and prisons are relatively small -- $78 billion. Law enforcement isn't nearly as costly as nonenforcement.

Politicians occasionally legislate but mostly ventilate, so Americans are investing in their own personal safety as best they can. U.S. News calculates private anti-crime expenditures to be $64 billion a year. In some areas, private money works very well. The burglary rate has fallen in half in 20 years, according to the Justice Department.

Surrogate government is an affront to our whole concept of equal protection under the law. But attempts to restrain people from spending their own money for security will fail. The right answer is to make everyone safer.

America needs more police to arrest bad people and, equally important, to deter people from doing bad things. But the adage that idle hands are the devil's work still holds true.

President Clinton is right when he says, ''Work organizes life.'' So it's tragic that the administration hasn't followed up with a New Deal-style Civilian Conservation Corps to get disorganized youth off the streets before they get into trouble.

Welfare reform may be the answer for the next generation, but in 1994 we need to point aimless kids toward something productive, such as environmental cleanup. A voluntary program that teaches the work ethic is better than prison, an involuntary program that reinforces criminality.

But programs targeting the poor will not reverse the larger breakdown of the common American ethic of live and let live in shared space. Unless we want to turn every public place into an airport-like environment of guards and metal detectors, we must address the fundamental problem: the loss of virtue.

Fans no longer want autographs, they want blood. People who used to go to confession now go for vengeance. The favored solutions of the left and right -- gun control and more prisons -- will not deliver us from these evils.

Bill Bennett's ''The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories,'' is a candle lit in the darkness.

Open any page of this compendium and you will see a tale that you wish everyone would read. Mr. Bennett writes, ''We have a wealth of material to draw on -- material that virtually all schools and homes and churches once taught to students for the sake of shaping character.''

Bully-pulpit crusades, in Washington and around the country, can succeed.

From ''Loose lips can sink ships'' during World War II to the campaigns against smoking, litter and forest fires in our time, destructive behavior can be modified.

The Clinton administration is confident it can teach us to wear condoms. It should try virtue first.

James P. Pinkerton, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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