Washington. -- I don't recall this society ever being deluged with so many reasons to fear for personal safety. Nor have I ever seen so much willingness to suspend constitutional rights in order to combat crime.
In this city alone we see every week that it is hazardous to operate a liquor store, or even a jewelry or mom-and-pop grocery store, in high-crime neighborhoods. The news out of Florida and elsewhere tells us that it is dangerous to drive a car. Some hoodlums make an art of bumping vehicles and then robbing -- or killing -- motorists who get out to investigate. Or someone may just drive alongside your vehicle and shoot you for the sport of it.
I don't go near a bank's automatic teller machine, because bandits wait to relieve you of the cash you've taken out. But now incredibly brazen thieves are kidnaping people and forcing them to draw money out of automatic tellers.
Children playing on school grounds, or even in their bedrooms, may fall victim to gun battles between drug peddlers or street gangs. We here are still lamenting the death of a 4-year-old girl who was shot as she sat with her mother at a football game at an elementary school in southeast Washington.
It is risky to open your door to any stranger these days, including those wearing police uniforms. They may be phony cops, or crooked cops who engage in robberies, random beatings of citizens or planting drugs and stolen guns in ways that enable them to railroad innocent people. We are now hearing some horrifying testimony about brutality and corruption within the New York City police department.
We also are seeing some panicky and frightening tactics and recommendations for fighting this terrible upsurge of violence in America. Floridians, terrified at the thought of losing tourist dollars, rushed into a spasm of searches and arrests that were of dubious legality after a British visitor was murdered.
Some Floridians now talk of allowing the police to stop any automobile, without warrant or probable cause, to search for guns. The idea outrages civil libertarians -- and those who know that a disproportionate number of the cars stopped "at random" will be occupied by blacks and Hispanics.
The beleaguered Washington mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, has reacted to a torrent of killings here by declaring that she should have the power to call out the National Guard without federal approval. A few congressmen say they like the idea of posting heavily armed guardsmen on most every street corner.
The idea is ludicrous for many reasons. What does it do for the cries for statehood when District officials say they can't police this city efficiently and must have federal help?
The National Guard is called out to quell riots and insurrections or help the people in natural disasters. Do we want our nation's capital to look like some dictatorial banana republic just because the Metropolitan Police Department is not manned or used to reduce the number of homicides, rapes and robberies?
Neither in D.C. nor other cities could the National Guard station people at all the stores and playgrounds that are vulnerable to robbery and violence, so the Guard is no panacea.
Fearsome circumstances usually produce frightful steps to produce tranquility. We must not scrap the Bill of Rights or abandon common sense in our urgent desire to crush the criminal elements in America.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.