Crime: Band-Aids At Least Are a Start

COMMENT

May 29, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Like just about everybody, I've been reading all the reports about how the fear of crime is rising in society.

The nightly news has become a catalog of murder and mayhem. Areas where certain crimes were unthinkable 10 years ago are the sites for all sorts of frightening occurrences.

I've been in the newspaper business for close to 20 years, a fact that should qualify me as someone hardened to routine crime reports. But I have to admit, recent years have me as alarmed as everyone else.

I'm scared. I don't know exactly what to do about it, but I'm mad and I want it to stop!

All the social service experts and public policy gurus say that so far we're just throwing Band-Aids at the problem. A better security system only makes prisoners of the victims, and does nothing to get at the root cause of crime, they say. The same goes for bigger prisons, more police and gun control.

To that I say: Heap on all the gauze and tape you can provide. With a wound this deep, it's only a matter of time before we get down to the kind of serious surgery needed to stop this bloodletting.

In the meantime, let's not eschew first aid.

The latest Band-Aid to be placed on the problem comes in the wake of two recent attacks on a Columbia neighborhood path.

The city's path system is a perennial source of concern for the community. Police are once again warning residents to stay off the paths at night and to travel in groups during the day.

In one recent incident, a 35-year-old woman was accosted off the pedestrian footbridge that spans U.S. 29 between the villages of Town Center and Oakland Mills. The woman was pushed into nearby woods, where the assailant allegedly punched her and attempted to remove her clothing.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon. Two children on bikes scared the attacker away.

In the other case, a man crossing the same bridge at 11:30 on a Saturday night was reportedly attacked by two youths, who beat the man unconscious and robbed him.

The police warnings are appropriate in both cases.

We can get mad as we want about having our rights curtailed by the criminal element, but do we have a choice?

At the same time, let's accept the obvious.

In the case of the potential rapist, we have a violent, demented creature that has no business on the street and could well be the beneficiary of a premature parole for a previous offense.

If and when he's caught, he should be locked up for the longest period possible without parole. Short of execution or castration, there is no permanent solution, only a temporary fix.

I have no faith in psychiatry or any other sort of rehabilitative service as far as violent criminals are concerned. I only have faith in four walls, a lock and a key.

The same, sadly, goes for the youths who attacked and robbed '' the man on the Columbia bridge.

Talk to them, scare them straight, appeal to their better natures. But let them pay a price behind bars.

Once that's done, let's sit back and try to figure out some long-term solutions that will save kids that haven't made the same mistake.

I even know what the principal long-term solution is.

It's restoring basic values of honesty and decency. Like our mothers always said, people have to learn from the beginning the difference between right and wrong.

We can disagree on a lot of things in this modern society, where ethics are called situational and truth is as much a matter of perception as reality.

But certainly we can agree that lying, stealing and murder are wrong.

I'm not going to negotiate with a teen-ager, no matter how poor and underprivileged, over when it may be appropriate to engage in criminal behavior.

It never is.

I wouldn't carry on such negotiations with my own children, and I'm not going to do it for others.

And yet, that's what we do as a society. We talk about poverty and bad schools and broken families. And we use these things as excuses instead of explanations or lessons we can learn from.

The answer is what I suspect we are beginning to realize.

The problem has to be addressed on all fronts, with punishment and compassion, with neither sacrificed for the other.

Build a prison, end welfare as we know it. But also hug someone else's child, and tell your own kids "no."

It has taken the erosion of every institution in society to get us to this point.

It is going to take a major restoration project to get us back on track.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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