MURDER IS DOWN in New York -- down 30 percent in the first half of 1995 compared with the same period last year. Murder is down 30 percent in Houston, too. Down 18 percent in Chicago. Seventeen percent in New Orleans. Twelve percent in Boston.
So, is everybody feeling safer?
Is anybody feeling safer?
Good news on crime shouldn't be ignored. The recent drop in the rates of murder and other violent crimes is real enough, even if the experts can't agree on what's causing it. But it shouldn't be overcelebrated, either. The downward blip in crime stats notwithstanding, most Americans don't feel any safer than they did last year or the year before last, and for good reason. They aren't.
Every year, 22,000 people are murdered in this country, give or take a few hundred. What will change in 1995 if the homicide rate is down a few points is the few hundred, not the 22,000. For a politician or a police commissioner, that may be reason enough to call a press conference and boast. For people who fear to go outdoors at night, it doesn't change a thing.
Remember: We're not talking about baseball statistics or poll results, where the only figures that count are the current ones. If you lost three fingers in an accident last year, are you better off if you lose only another two this year? The murder victims of 1995 don't take the place of 1994's; they're added to them. Another 22,000 of us will die of homicide. Another 22,000 will be ripped from their spouses, their children, their parents, their friends.
The body count may drop a bit in 1995. But the psychological impact of this year's murders will be more anger, more grief, more fear -- not less.
And murder is, so to speak, the least of our problems. For each homicide this year, there will be several hundred other violent crimes -- rapes, armed robberies and aggravated assaults. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 1987 that 83 percent of Americans will be victimized by violent crime at least once in their lives. Safer? To feel safer would be irrational.
It will be time to start feeling safer when most crime gets punished. Right now, our chief response to crime is to indulge it. Half of all violent crimes go unreported. Of those that are reported, less than half lead to an arrest. Even for murder, the arrest rate is no better than 60 percent, meaning that "two out of every five killers are completely untouched by the law," as Adam Walinksy, a policy analyst and one-time aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy, noted in the July issue of The Atlantic.
And of the relatively small number of violent criminals who are arrested, only a fraction are convicted -- and most of that fraction serve only a fraction of their sentence. Violent criminals who were released from prison in 1992 had paid, on average, just 48 percent of their "debt to society." For a murderer, that meant less than six years; for a rapist, about 5 1/2 years.
As new truth-in-sentencing laws come into effect, this travesty should gradually change. But for years to come, the odds of getting away with murder (or any other crime) will continue to remain extremely high.
In most cities, there are too few police. In most states, there are too few prisons. In most communities, there are too few sanctions for the kinds of disorder and decay that pave the way for serious crime: drunkenness, panhandling, graffiti.
But one thing there is no shortage of, anywhere: victims.
All of us are victims now. We think like victims. We behave like victims. We cower like victims.
Look at us. Urban thugs take over whole city blocks, and we run to the suburbs. Derelicts and drug addicts camp out on the streets, and we hurry past them, gaze averted. We have no stomach for attacking criminals -- all we beg is that criminals not attack us. And so we surround ourselves with rent-a-cops and burglar alarms. Put more locks on our doors. Install metal detectors in every public place. We make excuses for hoodlums and blame "society" for their conduct. And when other nations deal with their punks by flogging them, we pause in our debate over midnight basketball and gasp in horror at such barbarity.
"We will do almost anything not to have to act to defend ourselves . . .," writes Walinsky. "We have muted our dialogue and hidden our thoughts. We have abandoned millions of our fellow citizens -- people of decency and honor trying desperately to raise their children in love and hope -- to every danger and degraded assault."
Crime, for the moment, is down a little, here and there? Maybe. It doesn't matter. The longer we keep acting like victims, the longer we'll go on being victimized. Another 22,000 will be killed this year. Another 6.5 million will be violently attacked. In a few years, as the most brutal demographic group in the population -- males in their late teens and early 20s -- rapidly expands, crime in America will explode beyond anything we've known so far.
There's no secret to fighting crime: Hire more police, build more prisons, abolish parole, stop winking at juvenile criminals, severely enforce public-nuisance laws, permit self-defense for the law-abiding and put deliberate murderers to death.
The question isn't what to do, it's whether we'll do it. On our record so far, the answer is no. We should be scared.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)