"THIS CRIME BILL," predicted Mr. Clinton on Friday after the Senate gave it final approval, "is going to make every neighborhood in America safer."
Why do politicians say such preposterous things? No crime bill since the Puritans dismantled the stocks on Boston Common has made every neighborhood in American safer. This one won't, either. It may not make any neighborhood in America safer, let alone all of them. It won't put 100,000 new police officers on the streets. Its "artistic enrichment programs" won't make a dent in the rape statistics, and its ban on rifles that have grenade launchers won't stop muggers from mugging.
"Going to make every neighborhood in America safer." If a claim half as fraudulent appeared on bottle of vitamin supplements, the Food and Drug Administration would sue the manufacturer for deceptive advertising. But there is no penalty for government officials who utter sweeping nonsense about crime.
Clinton is hardly the only offender.
In Boston three weeks ago, Mayor Tom Menino and Police Commissioner Paul Evans released data showing the city's rate of serious crime had fallen to its lowest level in years. "Great statistics," Evans said. "Encouraging news," Menino rejoiced. Their explanation? "Neighborhood policing is taking hold."
Sound familiar? It should. Menino and Evans' predecessors -- ex-Mayor Ray Flynn and ex-Commissioner Mickey Roache -- used to spout comparable cant about how much less dangerous Boston had become on their watch. In 1992, for example, they flaunted FBI reports that murder, rape, and robbery were down in Boston. "Significant progress," beamed Flynn. "Encouraging news," agreed Roache. They attributed the figures to, yep, "neighborhood policing."
As Flynn and Roache were trumpeting Boston's shrinking crime rate in 1992, jazz musician Charleston Sarjeant, a 25-year-old father of three, was being beaten to death by strangers in a Dorchester fast-food restaurant. As Menino and Evans were boasting about the city's safety record this month, Laurence Talbot of Roxbury was getting stabbed in the belly by a stranger who showed up at his door, and two teen-agers were being arrested for killing Vilma Flores, the pregnant student shot dead during a softball game in June.
And in Boston since then . . .
Tyrone Boyd was charged with beating his girlfriend's 3-month-old infant (Aug. 10). Two Dorchester teen-agers were arrested for robbing taxi drivers at gunpoint (Aug. 12). Joseph Pressy, 19, of Mattapan -- "a nice, quiet kid" -- died after being shot three times in the back (Aug. 18). The driver of a Wells Fargo armored truck was shot during an attempted daylight robbery at the Charlestown Navy Yard (Aug. 18). Diron Spence, the 17-year-old son of a Boston cop, was shot and killed as he rode a bicycle in front of his house (Aug. 19). A prisoner grabbed a pistol and opened fire in a police station, wounding an officer and another prisoner (Aug. 21). Cathy Yeager was shot in the head during her 5-year-old son's birthday party in Mission Hill (Aug. 21). Two pedestrians were wounded, one critically, in separate drive-by shootings in Mattapan and Dorchester (Aug. 23). The New World Bank in Charlestown was robbed (Aug. 24). Police found Peter Mendez bleeding on the ground from gunshot wounds to his arm, thigh, side, and back (Aug. 28). Phong Thu Ly, a 1981 immigrant from Vietnam (and ex-con), was murdered in Chinatown (Aug. 28). Gunfire erupted during the Carribean Carnival; Ron Glover, a newcomer to Boston, took a bullet in the belly (Aug. 27). Landy Mack was stabbed to death after a dance at the American Legion post on Blue Hill Avenue (Aug. 28).
How much more safety can Boston take?
There is something almost surreal in the claims by politicians and some commentators that crime really isn't so bad anymore. "Be wary when the press pumps up a crime scare," warned Washington columnist David Broder not long ago. "Crime is real. But there is no rational reason to be panicked by it."
One of my colleagues lamented on this page recently that "people continue to believe mistakenly that they are in grave danger." He noted that Boston has "only the 28th-highest murder rate" in America. Only.
I make no quarrel with FBI numbers-crunchers. Maybe homicides, rapes, and aggravated assaults are down a few percentage points, here in Boston or across the country. What's up are the number of apartment doors fitted with police locks. The number of young women who always carry Mace. The dealers who sell hand-held sirens. The cars equipped with burglar alarms, LoJack transmitters, kill switches, and The Club.
What's increased is the families who have fled the cities, the parts of town tourists are warned to avoid, the emergency call boxes on college campuses, the shuttle services offered for employees who leave work after dark. There are more gun control laws. More gun buyback programs. More campaigns to reduce violence on TV, in the movies -- even on billboards.
In Massachusetts alone, there are 1,800 firms that install burglar alarms, and 12,000 people who work as security guards. Sales of electronic security systems have climbed by $40 million in the past five years -- by $1.4 billion nationwide.
There are metal detectors in schools and courthouses. Crime Watches in countless neighborhoods. A myriad of antiviolence programs with names like Gang Peace and Second Step.
We have been bailing water as fast as we can, and the best we can report is that the boat isn't sinking faster. But it will. For the hole is growing bigger, and we are doing nothing to repair it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)