We're Tough! So Tough!

October 28, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The children in my town are being sent home from school with holiday greetings. The holiday is Halloween and the greetings are warnings about the goblins and ghosts of modern life.

Do not go out alone, the children are told. Do not go into houses. Eat only treats that are wrapped. Show your parents the treats before you eat them. If anything unusual occurs call the police.

I read down the list with less horror than dull dismay. I know that on Halloween now we wrap our children in layers of such messages. We send them trick-or-treating with instructions on how to take candy from strangers. We worry about them on streets where even neighbors may be strangers.

But this year I am reminded that Halloween is no longer one day of fright. Fear has come to haunt us.

The specter of crime has hung over this election season like a malevolent ghost. It's topped the hit parade of our well-polled anxieties. It's sprung up in endless ads yelling ''Boo!'' at voters from behind every placard.

Today, each candidate is self-cast as a crime fighter as if the Senate or the governor's mansion were a police station. Opponents crop up in ads like defendants in a lineup, in the grimy black-and-white film once reserved for Willie Horton.

The ads have come to imitate the crimetime news they interrupt. A rape victim stars in one spot, the mother of an assaulted student stars in another.

In Texas, one of the Bush brothers, George Jr., ran an ad showing a man abducting a woman in a parking lot. (Never mind that the abductor was the sound man and the abductee the make-up woman for the commercial.) In Florida, brother Jeb has another ad promising he'll sign more death warrants than Gov. Lawton Chiles.

To prove their credibility -- to say ''I understand'' -- candidates send their personal stories on the airwaves. In Tennessee, Senate candidate Jim Cooper tells about the man with a pitchfork who tried to break into his house. In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner talks of a violent attack on his daughter. In the most heralded case, California's Kathleen Brown speaks of her daughter's rape after Gov. Pete Wilson accuses her of being soft on crime.

To further prove their toughness on crime, most candidates are topping each other in calls for longer, swifter, surer punishment. The Eagle Scout badge of toughness has become the death penalty. Worn with pride rather than regret.

The unsettling part of these political scare tactics is that there is so little connection between fear and punishment, between public anxieties and the political ''solutions.''

What are we afraid of? Carjackings, guns in schools, 11-year-olds throwing 5-year-olds out of windows. What is the political debate largely about? Building prisons, three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, hardened criminals.

What are we scared of? Disintegrating communities, letting our kids roam the streets, rape in the mall. What is the political dialogue about? The death penalty.

The crime debate, says James Alan Fox, dean of Northeastern University's school of criminal justice, ''is enough to make a criminologist sick.'' As for the death penalty: ''It doesn't accomplish much except to get people elected.''

Today the crime rate is not on the rise. But juvenile crime is growing. So is the category we think of as random, senseless crimes. So are sex crimes.

By 2005, if the figures for juvenile crime hold, there will indeed be a crime wave for one simple reason. There will be 23 percent more teen-agers than now. Yet there is painfully little talk about how to keep today's 5-year-old from becoming a violent 16-year-old.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake believes that for most people crime has come to represent the breakdown of family, community, institutions, morals. And she says,''They don't have the foggiest idea what to do about it.''

In our bewilderment we are looking for easy answers and they are being provided with cynical abandon. Instead of leading, politicians are following. Even to speak of crime prevention is to be labeled ''soft.'' It's the rare politician who wants to risk being caught coddling ''tomorrow's criminals'' -- even if they are today's children. It's easier to talk tough.

But the gap between fear and punishment is real. What will happen when getting tough doesn't make us safe? Will we get tougher? And when that doesn't make us safe? Will candidates run on the promise of implementing the death penalty with their own hands?

This year, candidates have come to this electoral Hallow's Eve with their hands out. They are wearing the costumes of crime fighters. Don't take candy from these strangers.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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