This write-up came about as a result of unrelated items converging in my thoughts. These items seem to be related to me, but as usual, I will leave it up to the reader to decide.
It started a day or so when I read an article from The Oregonian, dated November 1st, 1898, the day after Halloween. While I saw the article linked off someone's blog, and am not totally sure of its authenticity, it seems likely enough.
The article should be read, but the basic theme is that on Halloween of 1898, young people around Portland, Oregon
engaged in violent, destructive pranks
. Which in itself is not so much of a surprise, but what is noticeable is the almost congratulatory tone the article takes to the trouble caused by "strong, healthy young Americans". Even when the youth gangs
are attacked by a householder, the newspaper reports their violence against him as "defense", and seems to play the incident off as a joke. There is a small chance that the reporters of the Oregonian are engaging in irony
,(if they knew about irony in the 19th Century
), but it seems that they do really fine the criminal acts displayed as being unimportant.
Recently, the City of Portland has passed an ordnance restricting the sale of spray paint to minors. Paint must be locked up behind a counter and purchasers must sign their names to a ledger. While spray paint can be used to mark gang territory and can cause property damage when used against buildings, much of the graffiti writing is done in relatively abandoned buildings, or on the side of freight trains. I don't know if there is any evidence that graffiti is more of a threat than, say, littering, and yet it seems to be treated as a much more dangerous thing.
Something happened to Americans perception of crime, sometime in the past 100 years. Statistics are tricky things, and crime statistics are doubly so, but there is some evidence that the United States is about as dangerous to live in now as it was about a hundred years ago. For example, in 1907, the homicide rate in the United States was 4.9 per 100,000. Currently, it is 5.9 per 100,000. There are gigantic methodological questions, and factors such as better trauma care must be weighed against better reporting and a larger urban population, but it could be argued that the crime rate has not changed so much as people's perception of it has. My approach here does not involve the hardest sociology, but I encourage anyone who wants to do the requisite research to do so and to comment on my assumptions.
J. Michael Straczynski, during his run on Spider-Man, introduced a villain who was a collection of several dead mobsters, killed during the 1950s and brought back to life in the this decade. Despite the sci-fi background, the character makes a realistic point. He is aghast at the contemporary world, and proclaims to Spider-Man:
"Yeah, guys like us, we were trouble. But the streets were clean, and you went to dinner at a nice club, in a nice suit, and kids respected you, and everybody knew that the world was going to be even better tomorrow than it was today.'
I think this was a very real attitude. While people might find crime and criminals unpleasant, most people found criminals, whether destructive youths, organized crime, or a drunken man picking a fight in a tavern, to be part of society. Not a good part of society, but a part of society nonetheless. Dealing with the mafia
or drunken kids smashing your windows was just a cost of doing business
. For many people, some of these people were even doing society a favor: things like gambling and prostitution were going to happen, and while they couldn't be totally open, it was just as well that there were men who would make them happen. Men who also had families, religion, homes and nice clothing.
Crime could be divided into three categories: crime that is part of society, crime that is far outside of society (as with the most sadistic, violent and mentally ill people) and crime that is against society. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s, other than a spike in crime rates, was that people (both criminals and victimes) started perceiving crime as being against society, rather than just an unfortunate part of it. Criminals developed their own subculture, and didn't seek to integrate into society. And this, more than the actual severity of crime to life or property, is what really made people rally to Law & Order. To return to our graffiti example, graffiti has traditionally been seen as threatening beyond its actual economic damages, because the motivations of graffiti writers are for things outside, or against society. The graffiti writer would be less threatening if his writing was done for monetary gain. Because it is done for recognition inside of a tight knit subculture, it is a threat.
All of which brings us to the third element in this, that popped up after I was developing this essay in my head: that Philip Martin, a friend and campaign supporter of Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson, has a criminal record. His two biggest charges were selling eleven pounds of marijuana and an ounce of cocaine (with conspiracy to sell an entire pound of cocaine), for which he seems to have managed to walk away with only probation. It could be argued that it was indeed just the mistakes of a young man. However, I wonder if Fred Thompson, when he writes on his website:
We owe to ourselves and our fellow citizens our own adherence to the rules, but tough law enforcement and punishment for those who do not.
is thinking that probation for being a relatively large scale drug trafficker is a "tough punishment". It is true that since the mid-80s, Philip Martin has managed to keep out of criminal legal trouble; but I think that the real issue is something different. I would suspect that when Fred Thompson speaks about "tough punishment", he is referring to a special type of criminal. He is referring to the type of criminal, who I mentioned above, who is going against society. Philip Martin still believed in most of the social values that Fred Thompson espoused: he just wanted to get them quicker than most people. I don't know whether to be relieved or saddened that drugs, one of the things that first made people perceive criminals as being against society, are now seen as just another thing that people did wrong in their youth, kind of the same thing as putting a flaming bag of poo
on Old Man Johnson's
I do believe that these are all issues that must be dealt with fairly and throughly if we can have a more just society.