Getting serious (sort of) about crime (maybe)

February 04, 1994|By James Lileks

THIS nation suffers from an unparalleled wave of vicious, random news stories about crime.

Depending on which study you read, crime reporting on television, radio and newspapers is up more than 15 percent over last year, with a disturbing 23 percent jump in multiple-part series on the evening news. No one is safe. The man opening his newspaper, the woman stopped at an intersection in her car, the teen flipping the TV channels -- crime reporting could strike them at any time.

"It's awful," said one woman, interviewed on the news. "You get those TV cameras in here when something bad has happened, and they don't care where they point those things or who they film."

Nor is it just the bad neighborhoods that suffer. Crime reporting has moved to suburbia.

"I lie in bed at night," says a mother of two, "and you can hear it, off in the distance -- clack! clack! clack! The sound of someone with a typewriter composing another article about crime. We moved here to get away from all that, but now my husband's thinking of buying himself a PC."

All of this furor is a little unusual since crime is actually on the decline. It certainly is not much worse than a year ago; way back then, unemployment and health care were the crises of the day. But now that the economy is humming along and the government has promised to herd us into regional health-care alliances and brand our flanks with the mark of our HMO, we have to worry about something.

Crime fills that empty spot quite nicely.

And for good reason. Statistically, 1993 may have been a better year for crime than 1992, but maybe the criminal element was suffering from a cramped trigger finger. They'll be limber enough in '94. The real comparison should be 1993 and 1953 -- back when that modern marriage of the sociopath and the automatic weapon was still a few years off. They weren't even dating yet.

So we do have a crime problem. But just because the politicians are making noise, and stern worried anchormen are introducing an 856-part series called "America: Under Siege, Held Hostage, Pinned Down and Bleeding All Over the Rug," this doesn't mean the concern will translate to useful action.

Well, what can we do? Lock 'em up, of course. The latest innovation in incarceration is the three-strikes-and-you're-out law, which is certainly an improvement over the three-days-and-you're-out approach we currently employ. It will have the biggest impact on that part of the criminal class that expects to be caught, and plans accordingly. This type of criminal knows when to say when. "No more crimes for me, guys -- I think from now on, it's med school."

The remaining criminals, distinguished by an inability to think past tomorrow let alone count past three, will go right on busting heads. But if caught, woe betide them! It's a life of color television and free medical care, ending with a nice story in the local media about Pops, the oldest lifer in the system, who turned his life around by writing for the prison newspaper. That FTC cliche ought to dissuade anyone.

If we throw the book at them, what happens? A lawsuit: Book throwing was deemed cruel and unusual in 1956 because most convicts did not know what a book was and had no idea it would hurt when it hit them. But it also means we have to build more prisons. To some, this proves we are a Heartless, Uncaring Nation: We pay for punishment, but we won't pay to eradicate the Root Causes of crime -- poverty, illiteracy, injustice, nostalgia, seborrhea, psoriasis, waxy yellow buildup, painful bloating.

We have paid mightily to reduce income inequality, and have gotten little to show. We subsidize the lower class, a significant percentage of whom couldn't instill values in their children if you put Distilled Moral Wisdom in a turkey baster and held the tots' mouths open for them. We give far more in subsidies to the middle class, many of whom are as clueless as their impoverished counterparts and raise sullen, dead-eyed vandals whose moral compasses swing in the direction of the first peer to pay them attention.

Until we figure out some foolproof way to make sure everyone has strong character, we'll have crime, and lots of it.

Government can't do anything about that. Or can it? Perhaps the Clinton administration will propose Mandatory Family Alliances. Everyone will be assigned to a pool of wise elders, who will ration out lessons based on the severity of your moral dyslexia. Add some police and some jail cells, and we'll all be safe again. The crime crisis will be over.

Until we're in the mood for the next one.

James Lileks writes a column for Newhouse News Service.

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