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Did liberals get it wrong on crime?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This is a good news, bad news column. The good news is that crime is again down across the nation -- in big cities, small cities, flourishing cities and cities that are not for the timid. Surprisingly, this has happened in the teeth of the Great Recession, meaning that those disposed to attribute criminality to poverty -- my view at one time -- have some strenuous rethinking to do. It could be, as conservatives have insisted all along, that crime is committed by criminals. For liberals, this is bad news indeed.

The figures are rather startling. From 2008 to 2009, violent crime was down 5.5 percent overall and almost 7 percent in big cities. Some of those cities are as linked with crime as gin is with tonic or as John McCain is with political opportunism. In Detroit, for instance, with the auto industry shedding workers, violent crime was down 2.4 percent. In Washington, D.C., murder was down 23.1 percent, rape 19.4 percent and property crime 6 percent. Stats for political corruption are not available.

Probably the most surprising numbers come from Phoenix, which thought of itself as sinking in a sea of supposedly immoral and rapacious immigrants, all of them illegal and all waiting for nightfall and the chance for a nifty burglary or home invasion. If so, the crime reporting system has virtually collapsed. To the surprise no doubt of local TV news anchors, violent crime was down almost 17 percent. Back at 11.

What's going on? A number of things, say the experts. As is always the case, the police credited the police for magnificent police work, while others cited the decline in crack cocaine usage. Those answers, though, are only partially satisfying because, believe you me, if and when crime begins its almost inevitable ascent, the very same police authorities will blame economic or social conditions beyond their control -- not to mention the inevitable manpower shortage.

Whatever the reasons, it now seems fairly clear that something akin to culture and not economics is the root cause of crime. By and large everyday people do not go into a life of crime because they have been laid off or their home is worth less than their mortgage. They do something else, but whatever it is, it does not generally entail packing heat. Once this becomes an accepted truth, criminals will lose what status they still retain as victims.

This is not as outlandish as it may seem. I recall that after the Watts riots of 1965 (34 dead), someone determined that the mobs looted only those stores owned by the miserly and the mean. In other words, the store owners had it coming, and the rioters, which is to say the criminals, were just getting some justice, often in the form of a TV set.

So two years later, in the immediate aftermath of the Newark riots (26 dead), I conducted a one-man, totally unscientific survey of looted stores. I detected no pattern. Generous owners were trashed. Good guys suffered. The mob was not administering justice. It was getting stuff for free.

The Watts survey tended to support liberal dogma that criminals were like everyone else, only more desperate. Probably the ultimate example of this was cited to me years ago by a woman who had her necklace yanked from her while walking in Manhattan. When I commiserated with her, she said of the crook -- I am not making this up -- "he probably needed it more than I did." This is liberal guilt at its apogee.

A good deal of social policy was predicated on such an outlook. It made victims of criminals and criminals of victims (all wealth comes from theft, etc.) -- and in so doing, insulted the law-abiding poor who somehow lacked the wit to appreciate their historic plight. This ideology was mocked by Stephen Sondheim in his lyrics for the "West Side Story" song "Gee, Officer Krupke": "Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand, it's just our bringin' up-ke that gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!" In other words, all the gang members were the unavoidable products of their environment.

Common sense tells you that the environment has to play a role and the truly desperate will sometimes break the law -- like Victor Hugo's impoverished Jean Valjean, who stole bread for his sister's children. But the latest crime statistics strongly suggest that bad times do not necessarily make bad people. Bad character does.

cohenr@washpost.com


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