“It’s amazing to think that we’re now safer than Boise, Idaho,” announced Police Commissioner Howard Safir, as he inhaled many cubic centimeters of air and inflated into the puffed-up politician with good news. Suffice it to say the Mayor of Boise, when hauled to the telephone by a reporter, retorted that his city “is a place where people don’t lock their doors at night or their car doors. You can walk all hours of the night downtown and never feel afraid. I hope New Yorkers can enjoy the same thing.”
They almost can, which is why these brag-and-strut sessions about falling crime rates have become routine performances. Every year for the past seven, the release of new statistics has shown that the incidence of crime in the city continues to drop, as it does everywhere, including, we presume, Boise. The latest figures from California, for example, show a drop year over year of almost 8 percent in violent crimes statewide.
For more years than one can remember, politicians had been running for office on crime-reduction platforms of every kind, from the plausible to the absurdly cruel, and, once elected, they had delivered diddly-squat. Now, lo and behold, crime is dropping faster than a lead weight, and every mayor, governor, district attorney and sheriff from Squeehonk to Walla Walla is saying his or her crime reduction package has paid off.
None have been quicker or less modest in taking the credit than our local caudillo , Mayor Giuliani, who says he turned the trick by hiring more cops and having them go after panhandlers and squeegee artists. At the same time, in California, Attorney General Dan Lungren assures us it’s their three-strikes-and-you’re-out-of-circulation-forever law that accounts for why crime has taken a holiday in that state. The truth seems to be that whatever the crime-abatement program and whatever the locale, that which never worked before now works everywhere, every time.
Those who study crime say that the largest factor in the lowered rate is the drop in the number of males in the prime crime years of 14 to 29: two and a half million, or 8 percent fewer, than there were in 1980, when it looked as though nothing could stop the crooks and the murderers. The argument makes sense, for we know that the best predictor of recidivism among released convicts is their age. The younger they are, the better the chances they will break the law again.
But can an 8 percent diminution in this age cadre-plus, of course, the sort of things that officeholders like Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Lungren brag about-account for drops in the crime rate, which approach 30 and 40 percent? Even in cities like New Orleans and Washington, which have been cursed with famously bad police departments, the rates have been going down. Is it all owing to this modest decline in the number of men in their peak testosterone years?
Possibly, but anyone who has lived in New York or any place else the past 20 years cannot fail to see that a change has been working its way through a society that has mobilized itself against violence. The strict bourgeois standards of conduct, once dismissed with a flip of the cigarette, may soon become the only tolerated standards of behavior. Every day and everywhere, the resistance to violence and law breaking stiffens and grows sterner, as does the impatience with lewd, indecorous, rowdy and even impolite comportment.
We can thank the women of America for this change in the mood and in the furious refusal to put up with the pain and outrage of crime, but also of every form of reckless and destructive behavior. I would date, somewhat arbitrarily, I admit, the beginning of the great change to the killing of 13-year-old Cari Lightner in 1980 by a drunk driver with a record of similar prior offenses. The girl’s mother decided enough was enough and, with other like-minded women, started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Today, MADD has hundreds of chapters and upward of three million members.
MADD, more than any other group, is entitled to claim credit for the ever-diminishing numbers of alcohol-related automobile accidents. Thanks to these women, laws have been changed everywhere, judges have had their spines stiffened, police have tightened enforcement and now, in communities across the nation, countless groups carry on a variety of programs to keep drunks from behind the wheel of automobiles.
This would not be the first time that the women sprang into action to stamp out violence and lawlessness. Much of the credit for the end of lynching belongs to women. “The men were out making studies and so the women had to get busy and do what they could to stop lynchings!” said Jessie Daniel Ames, the white, single-parent businesswoman who founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. Through the strength they found in the ASWPL, intrepid women all over the South applied pressure of every sort on the men, be they public officials or their own husbands, to end this form of murder. By the time the politicians had summoned up the courage to pass an anti-lynch law, lynching had been all but completely stopped.
In our time, the women’s surge against crime, violence and cruelty has found expression in dozens of issues. The attention now given the victims of crime, the spotlight on wife beaters and deadbeat dads, the concentration, however morbid, on pederasts and pornography, neighborhood crime watch committees, the drive to control the sale and ownership of firearms and the posting of the whereabouts of sex offenders derive most of their impetus from the leadership of women and organizations dominated by women.
Some years before Dan Quayle took up the cudgels against the lessons being imparted to the young through commercial entertainment, Tipper Gore was organizing a charge against the likes of Time Warner making profits by teaching young men to revel in daydreams of sadism and slaughter. Women opened the way and men followed. New men’s organizations, like Promise Keepers, have been formed and older ones reinvigorated as millions of husbands and fathers seem to be making new promises, even as they renew old vows.
Because violence and sex are yoked together in the American mind and because we know of no other way of child rearing except through family and religion, the resurgence of bourgeois ideals has brought with it a neo-Calvinism which bothers liberals and libertarians alike. There is a fear that we will move from clampdown to lockdown and that the triumph of the constellation of values which comes with lowering crime rates may turn the United States into a new Switzerland.
Fears of an ice age of conformity are premature. Seemingly, we are closer to reenacting those old western movies, where the men and a few naughty women are whooping it up in the Five Star Saloon, and the women and a few good men are up at the top of the hill, praying in church. If the past is a guide to the future, neither congregation will get to run the town on its own terms.
Efforts of this sort tend to peter out with the generation which initiated them. Nevertheless, things have proceeded to the point where you can at least toy with the idea that daily life might be reconstituted in the next decade or so. At a minimum, the degeneration of everything, which people had all but resigned themselves to by the end of the 1970’s, has been reversed. Whether it is for a time or for all time, who can say, but what we can plainly see is that the cops and penitentiaries will avail little if the social foundations for quiet and safety have not been laid.