HAVRE DE GRACE -- It was sad to read of Sen. Barbara Mikulski's mugging near her Baltimore home last month, apparently by a known neighborhood creepo who later boasted about what he'd done and got himself arrested as a result.
Ms. Mikulski, the Senate's shortest member, is a Baltimore icon. To many of her constituents, an attack on her seemed almost personal, the next thing to an attack on them or their families. And her inability to defend herself, despite her stature as a state and national figure, seemed to exemplify the vulnerability of the community as a whole.
Fortunately, and predictably to those who know her, the senator seems to be recovering physically and spiritually from what must have been a searing experience. She's a tough and resilient person, not easily intimidated. But the dismal symbolism of the incident is inescapable. Urban crime is a lot worse than it was when she went into politics, 25 years and many hundreds of billions of dollars ago.
City muggings -- from the theft of school kids' lunch money to purse snatchings to armed robberies -- have become so commonplace that unless the victim is well known or is seriously injured they're usually considered only marginal news. The small, the weak and the foolhardy are the most frequent victims, but few are immune.
There can't be many residents of Baltimore who have neither been been mugged themselves nor known someone who has. Some find it devastating, but others who have been mugged seem grotesquely proud of it, as though it were a rite of passage that has in some obscure way validated their urban experience.
In the case of Ms. Mikulski, a certified liberal Democrat, it's obviously tempting to speculate whether the assailant who snatched her purse and bruised her hand might also have jarred her internal political compass. It's axiomatic, after all, that mugged liberals are sometimes reborn as conservatives.
And while there doesn't seem much chance that Maryland's junior senator is about to sign up with the National Rifle Association or press for the increased imposition of capital punishment, even before her recent encounter with harsh reality there had been some softening of her old positions on basic litmus-paper issues.
The National Journal's annual analyses of her votes clearly suggest she isn't as firmly planted in left field as she once was. In 1986, it reported that on major economic, social and foreign issues in the Senate, she cast liberal votes 86 percent of the time, and conservative votes never. But last year about one-third of her key votes were described as conservative.
A matter of money
The old Barbara Mikulski -- she who would have given the nominating speech for Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention, had not the Kennedy challenge to Jimmy Carter collapsed at the last minute -- believed firmly that American urban life was deteriorating primarily because the federal government wasn't spending enough money on social programs.
But the new Barbara Mikulski, like many of those who elected her to the City Council and the House of Representatives before she went on to the Senate, may be starting to see things a little differently. Her old constituents, in fact, are getting downright irritated, and it would be nice to see her get a little riled up too.
Some economists, including Nobel laureate Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, are now suggesting that most crimes are committed not because the perpetrators are deprived, but because they're rational. As the cost of crime drops, they commit more of it.
And that cost is now astonishingly low. One study of burglaries reports that only 7 percent result in an arrest; only 87 percent of those arrested are prosecuted; 79 percent of those prosecuted are convicted; 25 percent of those convicted serve time in prison. And as a result of all this, for each burglary committed, the study calculates that a burglar has a 1.2 percent chance of going to prison at all.
That's not a deterrent, it's an invitation. The time has come to raise the ante. It may be expensive, usually more than $25,000 a year, to keep a burglar -- or a murderer, or a mugger -- in jail. But it's a lot more expensive not to keep him there.
Unlike many other prominent elected officials in her party, Barbara Mikulski hasn't been so stunned by Republican gains that she's ready to quit. She bravely plans to soldier on. That's good news, on the whole. And if in the process she should decide to tackle the question of crime head-on, speaking out with all her formidable energy as an angry urban resident who's finally been pushed just a little too far, she might find herself a truly influential senator once again.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.