When crime comes home


AS OUR family was returning in a convivial mood from a party, a distraught neighbor emerged from her house. She thought we might have been the police, she said.

She told us that her husband had been beaten minutes earlier by a man who had taken his wallet. Her husband, an active man in his late 60s or early 70s, stepped onto his porch looking a little dazed.

Blood streamed down his face and onto his shirt from numerous cuts on his bare head. "They're just superficial wounds," he said. "Don't get all excited."

Moses had struggled with the mugger, who had beaten him on the head with what turned out to be a toy plastic gun and had grabbed his wallet from inside his jacket. As he fled, the mugger had dropped the gun, along with the wallet, perhaps because he was disoriented by the Mace his victim finally managed to spray at him.

Our toddler son became agitated: "I'm sad, I'm sad. Moses have blood all over his face." Repeating these words over and over, he clung to us for hours. He finally fell asleep at about midnight.

Predictably, my husband and I were also sad and angry that Moses had to suffer this, that our two children had to see this, that our spirit of good will after such a pleasant evening was brought up short before this evil reality. "You should have some Mace," my husband told me.

A night of tests at a nearby hospital proved Moses' wounds were superficial. As the police officer said after interviewing him, he was "lucky."

Who was this criminal? What brought him to our street? Along with many others, I remain troubled by our failure as a community to curb the rampant crime that impinges on our daily lives.

What can be done? Many say we must insist on individual responsibility. I agree. This mugger should have been caught and punished. Many others say we must accept collective responsibility for the social conditions that breed criminal behavior. I agree here, too.

Where is the incompatibility some see between the notion of individual responsibility and that of collective responsibility? Some argue that to blame social pathologies -- poverty, racism, teen-age pregnancy, child abuse, illiteracy, drug addiction -- for crime cripples our ability to deal with it. They assume that criminals cannot be held responsible if social forces are acknowledged as the underlying causes of their behavior.

But where is individual responsibility learned? In strong families and communities? If that is true, should we not set about repairing the social fabric before the lives of many more -- both the victims of social inequities and their victims -- are ruined? We write off millions of the socially alienated in our urban ghettos at our own peril.

Our freedom is limited by our realistic fear of crime. Railing against our victimizers and vowing revenge helps when a crime happens. But in the long run, shouldn't we seek to heal the social breakdown that threatens us all?

Should we continue to rely heavily on law enforcement, or should the luckier among us take on the collective responsibility of mending the social fabric to extend the blessings of democracy to all of our citizens?

Kathleen McCarty writes from Baltimore.

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