THE STATISTICS show that more crimes are being committed. So people talk about it. A man who had a wide circle of acquaintances is shot and killed by a burglar. So people talk about burglary and how to protect themselves and their homes. For two hours during one New Year's Day lunch, there seemed to be talk of nothing but burglar alarms.
At last the subject seemed to be exhausted. Someone introduced a fresh topic. It was: Smoke detectors. I exchanged a glance with another of the guests: "Why not have an All-Purpose Detector System in our homes?" Why not a single detector which will warn us against all harm and evil which may lurk outside?Why not fasten them to every ceiling and wall, to every window and door and under our pillows?
Why not stretch tripwires across every floor? Why not dig booby traps in the front path? Indeed, why stop there? Why not surround our homes with radar? Why not place a howitzer at the front door, a machine-gun at the back door, and station crack riflemen at every window? Why let anyone in? Why ever go out? Why not live in a bank vault? Why not just hide? Why take the risk of living at all?
As someone who has three times been robbed in my home -- once held at gunpoint -- I will admit that I have some impatience with burglars. They rob me of so much -- by my standards -- and they sell it for so little.If they allowed me to write them a check, I would lose less, and they would still get as much. I will also admit that to be held at gunpoint does not make for easy or entertaining conversation with a guest in one's house.
As for crime on the streets, I have twice been mugged. I regard my credentials in this matter as impeccable. Crimes committed against oneself and even against one's property are very tedious.
But I will not turn my home into a fortress, I will not live as a hermit and I will walk the streets of my city when I wish. To take the kind of precautions which some people suggest seems to me to throw the victory to the criminal. He has turned us into himself. To some extent this happens to police forces. It is unavoidable that it does. It is why we have the police, to do our dirty work for us.
Some of the affluent in Washington in fact live in a fortress. Kalorama Square. The walls around it are like those of the Kremlin. I have only once been inside it. I and a friend circled its walls for 20 minutes before we realized that the square was inside them. It might be a federal penitentiary for the rich. Ts inhabitants endure only slightly less restrictions than they would in a minimum security prison, so it will be little hardship if one of them is ever caught for white-collar crime.
It has often been a problem to decide what to do with old and disused prisons. Why not convert them into condominiums? Alcatraz would make a most salubrious spot, set out in its bay, and what could be more safe than to be surrounded by the ocean.
Devil's Island would do for those who prefer to winter farther south. It can also boast a most impressive list of former residents, including men like Captain Dreyfus whose innocence was later proved, so that there would be no taint in living in a penal settlement. Meanwhile, the actual criminals can be moved to more and more pleasant recreation homes, and the process of the law-abiding becoming like criminals will have its ironical fulfilment.
It must first be remembered that big cities have always been, are and will continue to be places with a lot of crime. The London of Dickens and later of "Gaslight" was ferocious; Boston was never an Eden; Philadelphia has never universally been a city of Brotherly Love. Crime has been worse or more prevalent in some periods than in others. Perhaps we are living, not only in America, in such a period now.
"Everyone in London expects to be burgled," said another Englishman at the lunch, who has himself been burgled recently in Washington. His voice was not quite lackadaisical. The Americans were shocked at his revelation. It was almost as if they thought that crime does not occur under the benign rule of a monarch and, of course, the London bobby.
The only truth in that is in one of the more engaging facts in the reports of the Metropolitan Police: that crime in London is always less on royal occasions such as coronation day. Not even the pickpockets worked the crowds on the day on which the present queen was crowned. This rather genial show of deference on the part of the criminal classes only suggests that there is some good in everyone.
But Americans think that the worst happens worse here, and Washingtonians that it happens worst of all in their city. Insofar as the worst seems to happen worse here, it is because so much of the population is armed; but that is another question. Not only does everyone in London expect to be burgled, the streets of London are generally no safer than here. Unfortunately, mugging is, like music, an international language.
But one of the results of the American attitude is that by their countermeasures Americans create the atmosphere of a criminal society. They begin behaving like criminals themselves. They lurk and hide like criminals. They bolt themselves in. They look through peepholes if the doorbell rings.
Someone is murdered on the path of the canal. They stop using the canal path. Another person is raped in Montrose Park. They stop using the park. One of these happened just before I first came to Washington; the other happened soon after I had first come; and it took years before both places were used properly again.
Back in London, I took an American friend back to her hotel after we had been out to dinner, at about midnight. Naturally we walked across St. James' Park. She suddenly exclaimed to me, "Look at all the people." Indeed there were people. Civil servants kept late at the office were striding home. Couples strolled arm in arm. Other couples were engaged in their dalliance on the grass. People sat talking on the benches.
The result was that St. James' Park at midnight was safe and used and enjoyed. The way to keep crime off the streets is to use the streets. Both occasions on which I have been mugged have been late at night on empty streets. The area round Dupont Circle is now a safe as one is entitled to expect because people are again crossing it at all hours. If New Yorkers want Central Park to be a playground again, let them start using it again as a playground.
One will not prevent every mugging, any more than one can prevent every burglary. But a population which chooses to be embattled in fact gives the criminal a license. It is more or less saying that it accepts that its society is in a state of war. Criminal attitudes are not nourished only by criminals in criminal minds. A society which retreats into its homes before the criminal is to that extent conceding ground to the criminal. Society becomes an armed camp.
The crime that affects most of us is, after all, more of a nuisance than anything else. (I am not speaking of homicides or rapes.) It is very tedious, as I say, it is not much more. Those who stuff their homes full of valuables must make their own choice as to how far they will reduce their lives to inconvenience and anxiety in order to protect their property.
I personally do not set much store by valuables. My guests seem to enjoy my wines even if they are not served in Waterford. They do not cry, when they enter, "Why, no Monets?" They seem happy to kick their shoes off under a table which is 20th-century teak and not 18th-century mahogany. They walk barefoot over a carpet which is neither Persian nor magic. They do not inspect the silver to establish its pedigree.
With the exception of the electrical equipment -- the stereo and the typewriter: will burglars please not take this typewriter? -- my most costly possessions are my books. So far no burglar has taken my 12 volumes of the Oxford History of England -- a few hundred dollars in that -- or the rather rare two volumes of Pollack and Maitland's "History of English Law." What I most value, no burglar seems to want.
I agree that people are entitled to protect their property, but it is their own decision, and not one of which they are entitled to complain, how far they will then go in turning their homes into fortresses. Even the police should not be blamed if the theft of a hundredweight of sterling silver from someone who is likely to be well insured is not the highest of their priorities. I hope that it is not.
The causes of crime are always what should be our main concern. I am not making a case for leniency; I think that our courts are far too lenient. But the simple fact is that all the most competent studies of the higher incidence of crime since the early 1960s point to the influence of four factors: high unemployment rates, the numbers of people below the poverty line, unequal income distribution and the sudden increase in the numbers of young people.
A society which tolerates high unemployment and, in particular, excessively high youth unemployment, is asking for trouble on its streets and in its homes. It is dangerous to divert attention from these causes by retreating behind burglar alarms and one's own handguns.
I will not here argue the case for beginning to disarm the population of America. I am simply arguing that it is the law-abiding who can do most to create a society in which crime is in fact sanctioned by their attitudes. To retreat before crime is to accept it.