Searching for the root causes of crime

August 23, 1994|By Andrew J. Glass

THIS TIME OF year millions of Americans with money in their pockets or adventure in their hearts quit these shores for distant places. When they get to them, they often see a different urban life than what they're used to back home.

As darkness falls, the great capitals of Asia and Europe hum with human vitality. At the hub of these urban centers, streets swarm with people enjoying the gentle August nights. They stroll. They talk. They eat and they drink.

By contrast, as evening approaches, the capital of the last superpower on Earth takes on the feel of a ghost town. Places where, by day lawyers and lobbyists ply their trades, remain all but forsaken. An occasional popular watering hole may attract a following. But the outlook for the average downtown Washington restaurant that seeks a dinner-hour clientele is pretty bleak.

On the other hand, every evening, many of the best eateries in the suburban malls are jammed. Some of the trendier places even issue beepers to their would-be patrons that buzz after an hour or more -- to signal that their tables are finally ready.

Suburbs also surround Paris and Rome, Tokyo and Hong Kong. But in those great cities nearly all the real action is to be found much nearer to what the Latins used to call the centrum. There, poor folks tend to live far from the center of town -- precisely the reverse of the normal urban inner-city scene in the United States.

Traditionally, large U.S. cities in the East and Midwest served as a base for industry, much more so than overseas. Often, when those industries left, nothing moved in. In the South and West, newer cities have acres of concrete, the better for commuters to move their cars at night back to suburbia.

Fear of crime, however, marks the real difference. In point of fact, most industrialized nations now have crime rates that closely track those in the United States. The exception, however, is murder, where the United States is No. 1. Social scientist James Q. Wilson notes that between 1985 and 1992, the homicide rate for young U.S. white males went up by about 50 percent. For young black males, it has tripled.

Much of that violence is apparently aimless.

As Mr. Wilson puts it in the September issue of Commentary: "We are terrified by the prospect of innocent people being gunned down at random, by youngsters who afterward show us the blank, unremorseful faces of feral, presocial beings."

Mr. Wilson sees the underlying state of American life -- too many guns, drugs, cars, neighborhoods in disarray -- as the root cause of the problem. He also notes that only 6 percent of male youths are behind more than half of all the serious crimes committed by young men.

The answer to the crime problem, Mr. Wilson says, is to train more of our resources on that wild 6 percent. That isn't something that the crime bill, approved by the House on Sunday, has done.

Politicians here just like to talk about the causes of crime. But when it comes to the crunch, they leave an empty downtown to enjoy a murder-free European vacation.

Andrew J. Glass is Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers.

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