Martial Law Won't Make the City Streets Safer

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I've been in just about every major city in the world, and I can't name one that I'd rather live in than the District of Columbia.

This city has beautiful neighborhoods with verdant lawns graced by abundant trees and flowers, a marvelous park system, some of the greatest museums and monuments on earth. It has the marvelous Kennedy Center and other theaters; a great National Symphony Orchestra and a once-great football team, my Redskins; top-rank universities; magnificent cathedrals, temples, synagogues, churches and people who represent all the cultures of the world. The international and national politics here may range from exasperating to titillating, but it is always intellectually stimulating.


So, I have asked often, why is it that wherever I go in this country, people refer to Washington most often as "the murder capital of the world"?

Now I ask why did D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly embrace the slandering of her city by asking President Clinton for authority to deploy National Guard troops to battle crime on the streets.


Sure, the District of Columbia, like most major cities in the U.S. and the world, has a dreadful crime problem. Along with the joyful places I mentioned above, Washington has areas where men, women and children sell illicit drugs, and fight over who sells where. This city has neighborhoods where pathetic women sell their bodies.

A tourist who enters one of those areas to buy drugs or sex has put his life at risk. Especially because those areas are also filled with people who sell guns brought out of Virginia and Maryland.

There are, in truth, several Washingtons -- most of them places of pleasure and reasonable tranquility, the others places of horror that are inhabited involuntarily by the least privileged people in our society.

Do the murders, rapes and robberies in these areas of human despair justify Mayor Kelly's lurch toward military repression? No. I find her request appalling -- tantamount to seeking martial law.

When Mayor Kelly pleaded for authority to call out the Guard, there had been 378 homicides in the District of Columbia. That was 11 more than the number of homicides on the same date in 1992, but 7 less than on the same date in 1991. Where's the sudden crisis?

Several cities -- Atlanta, Dallas, Birmingham, to name a few -- had a higher per-capita rate of violent and property crimes last year than did Washington. Are we going to have cries for martial law from all those places?

It appears to me that this lapse in judgment by Mayor Kelly was provoked by her irritation that, unlike governors, she lacks personal authority to call out the National Guard. Ironically, by pleading incompetence to deal with criminals here she has weakened the case for D.C. statehood, which I support.

Mayor Kelly contends that she is just responding to the citizens in high-crime areas here who "want to feel safe." But she ignores the arguments of those who don't want to be harassed and hounded, as the poor and black will be, by National Guardsmen operating under martial law.


The mayor seeks to calm city-council members who say they don't want the National Guard in their wards by saying that there are "no plans" for Guardsmen armed with M-16 rifles or .45-caliber handguns to patrol city neighborhoods. Well, what lawyer or stockbroker, dragooned to be a weekend warrior, can have any impact on crime, if all he or she does is ride unarmed in a scout car holding the hand of a policeman who has less firepower than most 16-year-old hoodlum drug peddlers?

The most recent "explanation" is that guardsmen would take over police paperwork so as to allow more real cops to hit the streets. The mayor has enough underworked employees in this city's bloated bureaucracy to take care of the paperwork without disrupting the lives of National Guardsmen and women.

Mayor Kelly lurched into an ego trip without giving enough consideration to the practical and constitutional implications of her draconian scheme. President Clinton told her quite sympathetically that he lacked authority to grant her request. He should have told her and and mayors in other high-crime cities that commandeering the National Guard is not their panacea for urban crime.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.