A Nation's Soul

August 03, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

Washington. -- If it's an election year, you can almost guarantee there will be a crime bill. This year is no exception. It doesn't matter which party is in the White House. Politicians believe they must demonstrate a determination to ''fight crime'' or be ''tough on crime'' and that legislation will do the trick, or at least fool enough voters into believing they are making a dent in criminal activity.

House and Senate conferees last week agreed on a massive $32.8 billion crime bill that had President Clinton gushing that its goals were one of the reasons he ran for president.

In addition to putting 100,000 more police officers on the streets, the bill bans the manufacture, sale and possession of 19 assault weapons; provides in excess of $10 billion to build more prisons; expands the federal death penalty to cover about 60 offenses; requires mandatory life terms for people convicted of three serious felonies, and authorizes $8.8 billion for programs that include midnight basketball games.

For more than two decades, the government has been fighting a war on crime -- and the criminals have been winning. Government officials seem to believe that criminals are a fixed number, and if we deal with those now committing crime, we will solve the problem. If that were true, crime would no longer be a concern.

Between 1973 and 1992, the American prison population grew from 210,000 to 884,000. More prisons were constructed -- costing taxpayers $37 billion -- than during any period in our history. But the overall crime rate increased. Like government's war on poverty, the war on crime has not been won because government has failed to address the real cause of crime.

Many liberals try to justify or excuse criminal behavior based on a flawed analysis of the human condition. They think people commit crimes because they are deprived of material goodies, jobs and decent housing. If that were true, then everyone who is poor, unemployed and living in substandard housing ought to be knocking over banks and mugging citizens. But most poor people aren't criminals, so that answer is insufficient.

Conservatives have been equally at fault, some trying to sell the idea that people can be deterred from committing crimes with tough laws and the threat of locking up criminals for extended terms.

In fact, tougher laws have not reduced crime, and taking some criminals off the streets simply has cleared the territory for new criminals to take their place.

Crime is a reflection of a nation's soul. We are paying the price for our refusal to instill character, virtue and morality in our young people. The destruction of the two-parent home, once thought of as essential in introducing the young to a civilized society, is largely responsible for the ever-growing crime rate. The absence of a father, acting as a role model and loving disciplinarian, has bred rebellion and anger by young people deprived of an inheritance that is rightfully theirs.

What we are witnessing in this country is the revenge of offended absolutes. We are focusing on the wrong target. fTC Instead of the criminals, we should be looking at ourselves. Somewhere on the road to victory over communism, we lost a more important battle. We failed to realize that men and women will not catch virtue as they catch a cold. It must be drummed into them and affirmed by the culture in which they live. When criminals and wrongdoing are glamorized in film, on television and in music, the young are introduced to the very things that eat away at society's foundation.

No amount of spending approved by politicians from whatever party or political persuasion will solve the crime problem, short of police state. If we really want to take a bite out of crime, we must reacquaint ourselves with concepts that were once familiar, but now foreign: character, integrity, virtue and morality. The cause of crime is largely due to the loss of individual character that has led to an erosion of our national morality and, worse, a reluctance to do what is necessary to reclaim it.

The American people should not let the president or Congress get away with any more of this. It isn't that we have spent too little of our tax money on the problem. It is that we have invested in too few of those eternal values and virtues that once produced a climate in which crime was big news, not a daily, even hourly, occurrence.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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