It was 10:35 on a clear, pleasant evening. There was a slight chill in the air. I parked directly in front of my house on Capitol Hill and with my companion strolled through the front gate and up to the front door.

It was then that I heard the gate squeak open behind us and turned to see two men rushing in, their pistols clearly visible under the street lights. I remember thinking to myself that now I would see exactly what "it" was like -- the experience of being the victim of a violent crime.

My detachment ended when I felt the hard cold steel of a handgun against my head. My friend had a pistol-barrel against her left ear. The handgun told me to open the door. I hesitated and offered our money. "Don't mess with us, man," one assailant said. The other threatened to shoot "the bitch." wThe gun pushed more forcefully against my head. I realized that my world of values, of reason -- in fact, my life itself -- counted for little. I opened the door and, under the gun's command, turned off the burglar alarm.

My friend was forced to lie face down on the living room floor. My first thought was that rape might be the motive for their insistence on coming inside. I took my own place face down on the floor. We were at the mercy of two feral men. We did not know what they wanted from us, nor whether the next few moments might be out last.

Then suddenly they disappeared into the night, taking my wallet and her purse, containing a total of $31 and credit cards. Such was the extent of our tribute to the terrible god of crime, who for some unknown reason spared us from physcial injury and from serious property loss. Many, many others have not been so lucky.

We may have been left unhurt that night, but the issue is not the degree of harm inflicted on individuals. It is the constant threat of injury and the certain repetition of such cruel acts in every city and town throughout America.

I have been thinking about crime.

Criminal activity flourishes when there is citizen apathy. In the minds of criminals, the threat of being caught and punished is reduced to a remote probability. More important, apathy stops our internal crime prevention mechanism. Perhaps crime exists in inverse proporation to the level of responsibility individuals feel for others. We all have "spheres of responsibility." The larger our spheres, the less crime. We need to learn how to expand our spheres as part of a national effort against crime.

One approach is to initiate a widespread program of voluntary service, or an obligatory public service program. Those who serve others see beyond the myth that society is made up of separate individuals whose destinies are unrelated. They know that for one to be safe from crime, all must be safe, and that if one if in danger, we all are.

The fight against crime will not begin until we recognize our collective role in creating this criminality. Our social mobility, our transience, our infatucation with "freedom" -- which we commonly define as the absence of responsibility, when it is in fact just the opposite -- are purchased at a high price, sometimes with our lives. We are victims of a social distancing, and estrangement from others, which breeds crime.

Our traditional approaches have failed because crime prevention has little to do with the criminal justice system. The police are society's bouncers, there to rid us of anti-social behavior after it occurs. A crime-free society is possible only if individual spheres of responsibility overlap sufficiently to shield us all. Law-abiding citizens are divided and conquered because of their reluctance to grow closer to others.

Get to know your neighbors. Learn their names. Exchange phone numbers and agree to call each other and the police in the event of suspicious activity. Become more open to others and make sure that others know that you appreciate their concern for your well-being. Become a busybody. Begin neighborhood watches. Volunteer for community service programs. Work with the police to bring back neighborhood concern for safety. Try to be conscious of your own behavior and its impact on others.

Not until people are able to break down the self-imposed barriers between them -- barriers that make then vulnerable -- and cooperate will the god of crime be overthrown.