THE SUBJECT is arson, and the question is this:
Does a problem that is grave and growing nationwide require a national-that is, federal-solution?
The normal Washington answer is, "Yes." Arson of all sorts-for profit, for revenge and as a form of vandalism-has reached near-plague proportions in some cities, especially declining ones. Its nationwide toll has risen swiftly to about 1,000 deaths per year and property damage somewhere between $1.3 billion and $4 billion annually. Many local fire and police departments are badly strained. The problem involves a major industry, insurance, and sometimes-on the other side-organized crime. All this makes arson an obvious candidate for elevation from local difficulties to the ranks of national problems that congressmen and federal agencies feel compelled to address.
The process is well under way. Senators have made speeches, held hearings and issued reports. The General Accounting Office has recommended improvements in federal insurance programs and law-enforcement work. Sens. Charles Percy (R-III.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) have told federal agencies to get their anti-arson act together. And now, we learn, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration has responded by drawing up a comprehensive "Department of Justice Arson Control Strategy."
The LEAA plan, now before Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, has all the elements of a proper federal attack on anything. It calls for inter-agency coordination, multijurisdictional task forces, data collection and analysis, training and technical aid for state and local governments, demonstration projects, conferences and research-part of which is to "synthesize" available data into "a series of programmatic options directed at practitioner audiences." That seems to mean telling communities which anti-arson programs work.
The federal campaign is to start modestly because LEAA, whose budget has been declining, can spare only about $4 million. But such "strategies" have a way of growing-and the tendency toward more and more official studies, mandates, task forces and special programs is what's worrisome. For when you get right down to it, curbing arson means keeping people from setting fires, if possible, and making sure that those who do burn building are caught, convicted and punished for their crimes. This cannot be done in the abstract, or by or from Washington. Determined community efforts are required.
Several cities-Seattle and Boston, for two-have found ways to reduce arson by making it much more risky andless lucrative.They have done so without any national strategy and, indeed, may have succeeded in part because there was little federal apparatus to complicate their work. Congress and federal agencies may be able to help by putting pressure on the insurance industry, for instance, and by giving cities some money and technical aid. The question is whether they can do so without creating new bureaucratic complications and transforming this frightening crime into a "problem" far removed from the specific streets where the decaying buildings, vengeful or greedy arsonists and terrified people are.