Can we get a handle on crime?

January 28, 1994|By Bob Herbert

IS THERE reason for hope, or is that naive?

Is the country really waking up to the enormity of its problems of crime and violence, or is this just another phase, driven by the media and lasting only until we are diverted by a killer blizzard, or a celebrity sex scandal, or a surprise locker-room attack by a Buffalo hitperson to the knees of Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith?

A serious national effort to combat crime has never been needed more than now. Americans are being murdered, raped, beaten, robbed and otherwise terrorized in numbers that suggest an extraordinary evil has been loosed upon the society.

No one is immune, not even toddlers or infants; and no place is exempt, not even schools or houses of worship.

The reality is more horrible than most fiction writers are capable of imagining. The Children's Defense Fund has released a report that says nearly 50,000 children and teen-agers were killed by firearms in the United States between 1979 and 1991. More than 24,000 of those deaths were homicides, the remainder being suicides and deaths from firearm accidents.

A child growing up in the United States is 15 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than a child growing up in Northern Ireland. An American child or teen-ager dies from gunshot wounds every two hours.

The only thing more remarkable than those statistics is that the violent deaths of so many young people could occur without a frenzied national outcry, a collective expression of anguish and outrage.

Perhaps that is occurring now.

A New York Times/CBS News Poll shows that crime has become the nation's biggest concern. The major media outlets are top-heavy with stories and special reports about crime. The politicians, irresistibly drawn to the twin lures of opinion polls and television cameras, are flexing their rhetorical muscles.

But we've been here before. Ten years ago President Ronald Reagan trumpeted "the most sweeping anti-crime bill in more than a decade." At a White House press conference he promised to provide "long-overdue protection to law-abiding Americans" and "to put an end to the era of coddling criminals."

That was followed by the most violent, crime-ridden decade in the nation's history.

This time could be different. The key will be whether the politicians and other leaders are willing to avoid the notion of simplistic solutions. Crime is an incredibly complex issue and no real breakthroughs can be accomplished by knee-jerk responses the right or the left.

Obviously something is wrong with a criminal justice system that regularly releases murderers in five and a half years and rapists in less than three. And there is something wrong with a society that can't seem to corral -- and keep corralled -- repeat violent offenders.

But there is also something wrong with a society that takes huge segments of its juvenile population and condemns them to a hideous world of ignorance, fear, alienation and criminal neglect. Something has to be done for children who, at ages 10 and 11, are making detailed plans for their own funerals.

For years we have had advocates of harsh punishment on one side and those who want to attack the root causes of crime on the other. It is past time for each side to listen seriously, and in a spirit of good will, to what the other side has to say.

Beyond the toll of lives lost and pain endured, crime in America costs hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Getting even a modest handle on crime would have an enormous positive effect on society as a whole, including the economy and the continuing problems of health care and welfare.

Crime is the real crisis in America. But doing something about crime also means doing something about drugs, about guns, about jobs and about values.

It will require the effort not just of politicians, but the rest of America as well, including educators and the clergy, community and civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens, especially parents.

There's also the media, of course, which can be helpful by shifting some of the emphasis from the sensational crimes to the less entertaining search for solutions.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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