The Curse of Violent Crime

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A pervasive fear of robbery and mayhem threatens the way America lives

Day by day, America's all too familiar crime clock ticks faster and faster. Every 24 minutes, a murder is committed somewhere in the U.S. Every ten seconds a house is burgled, every seven minutes a woman is raped. There is some truth in the aphorism of Charles Silberman, author of Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice, that "crime is as American as Jesse James." But there is also something new about the way that Americans are killing, robbing, raping and assaulting one another. The curse of violent crime is rampant not just in the ghettos of depressed cities, where it always has been a malignant force to contend with, but everywhere in urban areas, in suburbs and peaceful countrysides. More significant, the crimes are becoming more brutal, more irrational, more random —and therefore all the more frightening.

The nation's top jurist, Chief Justice Warren Burger, warned last month about the "reign of terror in American cities" and bitingly asked: "Are we not hostages within the borders of our own selfstyled, enlightened, civilized country?" Some criminologists answer that the fear of becoming a victim of crime is greater than the actual risk, but no one denies that the fear is real. Proclaimed the Figgie Report, a privately funded study of crime in the U.S.: "The fear of crime is slowly paralyzing American society." Observes Houston Police Chief B.K. Johnson: "We have allowed ourselves to degenerate to the point where we're living like animals. We live behind burglar bars and throw a collection of door locks at night and set an alarm and lay down with a loaded shotgun beside the bed and then try to get some rest. It's ridiculous." The chief knows whereof he speaks; he keeps several loaded guns in his bedroom.

Attorney General William French Smith has declared that the Justice Department will place a new and high priority on fighting violent crime. He appointed an outside task force, headed by former Attorney General Griffin Bell and Illinois Governor James Thompson, to figure out what the Federal Government can do about what has traditionally been a local and state responsibility. Smith also cited, from a new Justice Department study on the prevalence of crime, a telling statistic that helps explain the growing public concern: roughly one out of every three households in the U.S. was directly affected by some kind of serious crime last year. Rare is the American who does not personally know at least one victim of violence.

In reaction to the spreading fear, Americans are arming themselves with guns as though they still lived in frontier days. "It's the Matt Dillon syndrome," says Jack Wright Jr., a criminologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "People believe the police can't protect them." They are buying guard dogs and supplies of Mace. Locksmiths and burglar-alarm businesses are flourishing, as are classes in karate and target shooting. Banks have long waiting lists for vacated safety-deposit boxes. Many city sidewalks are a muggers' mecca at night; the elderly dread walking anywhere, even in broadest daylight. The fear of street crime is changing the way America lives.

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