The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Street crime has distorted our politics before. If we don’t get it under control, it will do so again.

Police tape surrounds the scene of a shooting in Philadelphia. The city has a record 555 homicides this year. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Even for a kid arriving from Manhattan, Philadelphia seemed lawless in 1990. The city’s population was shrinking and its homicide rate was peaking — 500 killings that year, a record that stood for decades. On the University of Pennsylvania campus, where I went to school, local fast-food joints were nicknamed “Murder King” and “McDeath,” with good reason: The weekend I moved in, two men were killed and two others wounded coming out of the movie theater near to the McDonald’s. I heard a few anxious parents had tried to pack their freshmen back into the car and drive them somewhere safer.

Thanks to the long urban boom, those same streets are now lined with expensive buildings and upscale shops and, until recently, were noticeably safer. But the past few years have seen rapid regression. Two men were killed near campus a couple of weeks ago, and the city as a whole has just broken that 1990 record. This year’s body count stands at 555 as of Tuesday night.

Nor is Philadelphia alone. At least a dozen cities have set homicide records this year. The scale of the killings is recapitulating the worst moments of the United States’ 20th-century urban crisis. And if we can’t stop it, we’ll also end up with the kind of over-the-top political response that we have spent decades regretting.

That was the era when Bernhard Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante,” became a New York folk hero for shooting a group of young men who demanded $5. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton left the presidential campaign trail to be home for the execution of a severely brain-injured convict. A few years later, as president, Clinton would help spearhead passage of the infamous 1994 crime bill, which ended up dogging both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden during their presidential runs because the modern era blames it (somewhat unfairly) for mass incarceration.

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The younger progressives who called out Biden and Clinton tend to view the law-and-order politics of that era as pure sadism — or else as a racist, “New Jim Crow” backlash that served to keep Black Americans separate and unequal. And they’re not wrong that “tough on crime” policies were especially tough on Black people and Hispanics.

But having lived in a New York where the homicide rate was seven times its 2019 level, I think they tend to overlook how central crime is to the history of American criminal justice policy. That’s understandable — it’s hard for anyone to imagine how differently they would think, and act, if they were seven times more afraid of being killed. But pervasive fear of crime changes you. It changed the United States from a nation that believed in second chances, to one that wanted to lock criminals up and throw away the key. We didn’t change our minds again until crime had fallen significantly.

Crime control is arguably a prerequisite for many items on the progressive policy agenda. Want people to support higher immigration? Reassure them that foreign gangs are not going to reassemble on American streets. Want people to move to dense, walkable urban neighborhoods where their carbon footprint will be smaller? Those neighborhoods won’t be very attractive if there are many criminals walking around, too. And of course, people are most likely to support a reformist criminal justice agenda when crime is low. If many people you know have been victimized, you tend to err on the side of keeping offenders in jail.

But it’s not just the progressive agenda that has benefited from the United States’ long secular decline in crime. In the wake of recent mass shootings, gun rights advocates have managed to block even overwhelmingly popular gun-safety measures, such as stiffer background checks. They’re able to do this because of a big gap in voter intensity: Gun owners are often single-issue voters, while most Americans care more about other issues, becoming interested in gun policy only in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like Newtown, Conn.

Shocking as they are, the intensity of our fear over mass shootings nonetheless wanes quickly, depleting the political impetus for gun control. And because such shootings are rare, those anxieties are infrequently renewed. Ordinary crime, on the other hand, happens all the time — and when it is pervasive, people worry about it constantly.

Notice that the 1994 crime bill included a federal ban on assault weapons that would be politically unthinkable today. But one can imagine that more legislators might find it a lot more thinkable — along with other measures regulating and restricting access to guns — if D.C. were still the “murder capital” of a country in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.

Regardless of your view of gun laws, or immigration policy, it is clearly in everyone’s interest not to allow that to happen. In the 1990s, we became the national equivalent of those nervous parents, so overwhelmed by anxiety about crime that they were afraid to leave their children at college. If we don’t get our streets back under control quickly, that could easily be our future as well as our past.