IN THE late 1980s, while I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, I found myself chatting with a young, impressionable professor.
She was white, protected and very self-consciously well-meaning. Our discussion turned to crime, and I mentioned that, a few days previously, a majority African-American jury in Baltimore had very ostentatiously acquitted a black defendant of drug-related murder charges.
"That's wonderful," she gushed. "They're fighting back against the system!"
If she were still in Baltimore, my naive acquaintance would no doubt be horrified at Mayor Martin O'Malley's zero-tolerance crusade.
This would be a pity, however.
When you live in the refined neighborhoods just north of Hopkins, as she did, and when the closest you come to crime is occasionally seeing someone going through your trash can, you can afford to pontificate about The System. But most people in Baltimore don't have that luxury. And, of course, most of the people who are killed do not look like my comfortable companion.
Racial issues underlie all discussions of crime in Baltimore. Frankly, this, and this alone, is why zero-tolerance is controversial.
One would have to be naive to assume that the implementation of zero-tolerance will not result in an increase in the number of young, black males arrested. One would need to be equally innocent to assume that the majority white police force has not in the past been insensitive to the black community.
All the same, the sort of anti-police rhetoric slung around the city in recent months is almost as far removed from the point as the Hopkins professor's posturing.
The annual death toll is overwhelmingly black. African-Americans make up about 90 percent of the annual roster of murder victims. In Baltimore City, there is a 5.7 percent chance that any given black 15-year-old boy will have been a homicide casualty before turning 35.
Let me put it another way: go into one of the city's public schools and ask 50 10th-grade African-American males to join you in one of the classrooms. Take a good look at them. Three of them will be murdered.
If Baltimore is to retain some semblance of seriousness as a municipal entity, the talking must stop and the policing begin.
As with the Holocaust, as with the Stalinist purges, we are stupefied by staggering statistics, and thus tune them out.
Many people in Baltimore cannot consciously recall a time when there were fewer than 300 murders a year. So the horror of the fact is lost.
But dwell a minute on a historical comparison. Baltimore's dwindling population is now about 625,000. The last time it was that small was in 1914, when it was 628,621.
That year, there were just 64 murder arrests in the city.
By comparison, Great Britain has a population of 59 million, yet endures fewer than 900 homicides a year, including deaths caused by negligent driving and the political killings in the much-maligned Northern Ireland.
In fact, let's take Northern Ireland. It has a population of 1.7 million. In 1992, a typical year for sectarian strife before the start of the current peace process, there were merely 14 murder convictions.
If we as a city wish the comeback that has so long eluded us, and if we wish safety for ourselves and our neighbors, then something akin to zero-tolerance is our only option. Either that, or move to Belfast. It's safer there.
Douglas P. Munro is president of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, which is accessible on the Internet at www.calvertinstitute.org.