I don’t mind a good air show now and then.
But I am a bit uneasy when it’s a police helicopter hovering around the neighborhood. On a recent Thursday afternoon, I soon became aware of a preponderance of law-enforcement vehicles on the streets as well.
They were everywhere. Something big must be going on. I doubt they’ve found a way to check inspection stickers from the air. I considered turning around and checking the house and street, but I thought better of it and decided to keep my appointment. Just another crime in Schenectady, I thought.
Returning home that evening and flipping on the news, I learned that there had been another shooting. But this one was different. It was car vs. car, in broad daylight, and near my house! They eventually found both cars. One was wrecked with a bullet hole in the window and the other was found abandoned near Niskayuna High School.
One individual had checked himself into Ellis Hospital and was “uncooperative,” while the shooter was on the lam. Several schools were put in lockdown and part of a city was once again peering at the outside world through closed blinds and locked doors.
Crime events seem to permeate our city. They dominate the news, fill our courts, disrupt our lives and our tranquillity, and fill our jails. And it is becoming more violent. Gone are the idyllic times when we left our doors unlocked, walked the streets in the evening, opened our curtains during the day and let our children walk to school on their own. It’s curious to me that in the current presidential race, which is dominated by the issues of the war in Iraq, health care, the economy and terrorism, crime is not mentioned by the candidates as a major issue in our society. Even the citizenry, when polled, don’t list crime as one of their major concerns. Have we just accepted it as part of our lives and our culture?
Drugs and other causes
I blame a lot of it on Nancy Reagan, and my tongue is only partially in my cheek. “Just say NO” was a silly, ineffective, and naive reaction to the growth of drug use in our society in the latter part of the last century, and drug use is directly related to the growth of street crime that we suffer from today.
When the use of drugs left the select domain of that curious niche of casual users and was deposited squarely unto the streets of middle and urban America, a “war on drugs” was declared. It became a war with no battle plan, little strategy, even less understanding and insight, and not only resulted in complete failure, but it essentially put the skirmishes right into our streets, where we’d have to fight them! It criminalized a large part of the population and avoided real solutions dealing with the very fabric of our society. I don’t recall volunteering for the war. Please tell me, where do I de-enlist?
Certainly not all crime is drug-related. Crimes of passion, “white collar” crime, cyber-crime, “organized” crime, random acts of violence and even crime for amusement have become part of our culture and our fears. Poverty, greed, lunacy, anti-social behavior and immorality all play a part. Particularly disturbing is the outlaw mentality embraced by some of our youth that somehow being bad is good. When cruelty becomes cool, we are in trouble.
The solution, I think, is twofold: law enforcement and crime prevention.
Enforcing the law is, by far, the more successful of the two. Indeed, our jails are full. One of every 99 Americans is in jail or prison. The percentages are even higher in minority communities, and these figures are the highest among all countries. We are No. 1 in incarceration! We spent $49 billion last year, six times more than was spent on higher education. The police can’t keep up with law enforcement even with their success.
The real issue, and the one that the war on drugs so completely failed, is that of crime prevention. We just don’t know how to do it. I know I don’t, but it is clear that the problems are societal and preventing crime by changing society is a tall task. When people are alienated, when they have no stake, when they feel disenfranchised, then our safety is secondary to their survival.
Commitment, plans needed
Programs designed to improve education, end poverty, promote family values and give hope to our youth are ineffective without commitment and clear action plans. Without that, they become meaningless generalities that have the result of having tomorrow look pretty much like today.
Some ideas the Gazette has reported on recently give food for thought: We can take cops out of our schools and put them on the street, but we should do both. We can try to eliminate the “no snitch” culture, but will “Just say YES” work any better? We can have gun amnesty programs, but without guaranteed immunity and monetary reward, I don’t think they work.
Or we can arm all of our citizens, as has been proposed in 15 state legislatures, most recently by Arizona state Sen. Karen S. Johnson. Her legislation, a reaction to the killings on the Northern Illinois campus, would allow all college students over 21 with a concealed weapons permit to carry guns on college campuses. At the risk of being crucified on the cross of the Second Amendment, I have a question for Sen. Johnson: If you are in a 300-seat lecture hall where 150 students are armed and a lone gunman steps onto the stage, what row do you want to be sitting in?
Dreaming of peace
But enough pessimism. The helicopter is gone now and the neighborhood is quiet. I defiantly open my front door to a sunny day and I cherish the tranquillity that is guaranteed in another document by the Founding Fathers, written before the Second Amendment, the one that guarantees all of us the right to the “pursuit of happiness.”
I throw my support to all of the good citizens who have had enough of it and once a year bravely take to their streets to “Take Back the Night.” And I contemplate what it would be like if the other 364 nights were as peaceful.
Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.