Last week, the American left was back on the national crime beat. It’s been almost two decades since we’ve heard from them. And that begs two questions:
Where have they been for all these years? And why is it likely we won’t be hearing from them again any time soon?
It felt like the old days after last week’s shooting spree in Arizona. I’m not referring to crime scene reports, hospital updates or the obligatory release of suspect Jared Loughner’s freaky mug shot. On that front, I’m still waiting for the perp walk.
No, I’m referring not to the micro, but the macro — the deep-thinking stuff: The big picture analysis from select liberal politicians and the big analytical brains that hold forth on editorial pages or emote through the furrowed brows of TV’s talking heads.
The heady consensus of these drive-by criminologists: Loughner’s alleged homicidal shooting spree was the result of the heated rhetoric and violent imagery polluting the zeitgeist, generated by — wait for the profundity now — the “angry” right.
But while the crime was unique because a congresswoman was the first target, the left’s response was not. It was a contemporary variation of an old theme exploited effectively for the better part of the last century by progressives on the issue of crime in America.
American crime, they argue, is not the result of individual personality disorders, drug addiction or defects of character. Those, at best, are only symptoms. Crime rises from America’s shortcomings: Poverty. Racism. Lack of education. Capitalistic materialism. I even recall a decline in infant breast feeding being cited years ago.
Put simply, something — or somebody — else makes criminals do it.
That notion formed government policy after crime rates soared in the Sixties and Lyndon Johnson offered his Great Society to mitigate, among other things, the “root causes” of crime. Still, crime and homicide rates continued to climb for years afterwards. Journalists tagged the bloodiest big cities like Detroit with the dubious titles of “The Murder Capital of America.”
Then, in the Eighties, Americans began to wise up — and it wasn’t necessarily from the ascendency of conservatism. Average Americans started examining crimes from more-reliable, direct sources. They stopped relying on politicians and misinformed breaking-news reporters to tell them what they were seeing and how they should interpret it day after day.
The Eighties became the golden age of accessible crime knowledge for everyday Americans. True crime books dominated the New York Times best seller list. Nonfiction authors, me among them, probed the psyches of killers in sensational cases. The hardcover blockbusters were often about serial criminals and upscale killers like Fatal Vision’s Dr. Jeffrey McDonald. These monsters were well-educated and came from good families. They were not victims of poverty or racism or a deficiency of warm breast milk.
Critical mass was reached in 1991. Court TV debuted with gavel-to-gavel coverage of complex, compelling trials of all sorts of perpetrators. The Silence of the Lambs took home five Oscars. Americans were fascinated by the criminal mind — in particular, the psychopath. The psychopathic mindset included the lack of a conscience and a disregard for the rights of others. Prison studies showed the disorder widespread among both white collar criminals and run-of-the-mill street hoods.
Bona fide criminologists and leading research psychologists like Robert D. Hare came to some startling conclusions about what is clinically known as the “antisocial personality disorder.” It defies a predictable pattern of external social, cultural or behavioral causes. And these predators are essentially immune to therapy.
In short, society doesn’t cause it. Society can’t cure it. And society can’t control it. Authorities can only reduce predatory opportunities with incarceration and community crime prevention.
As for public policy, a criminal-justice approach to crime ascended under Ronald Reagan. Years later, even Bill Clinton was embracing tough crime measures and “a hundred thousand new officers on the street” for community-oriented policing. Three Strikes laws passed in two dozen states.
We were hearing less rhetoric and reading fewer stories about society’s role in crime. Some pols and pundits transferred the debate to culture and the influence of rap music and violent film and video games. But in my view, blaming Pulp Fiction for creating your next American psycho is only one click away from blaming poverty. Both dismiss individual psychopathology and the principle of individual responsibility.
One could argue a twenty-year decline in the U.S. crime rate has muted some debate on national crime problems. That decline continued in 2010, even in economically hammered Detroit. Times are tough for the hard-times-create-crime argument.
But while popular television franchises like CSI present the illusion that new forensic technology assures apprehension and justice today, American police and prosecutors know differently. Murder ended more than 15,000 lives in America in 2009. More than 3.5 million more were robbed, assaulted, burglarized or raped, says the FBI. And average Americans continue to watch true crime shows on cable, not just about psychopaths, but assassins, spree killers, crimes of passion and the deadly outbursts of mad men that defy explanation or reason.
So why have we heard so little about the external, societal causes of crime from the American left in recent years? I asked author David Horowitz the question over dinner recently at an event several weeks before the Arizona shooting.
“They dropped it,” Horowitz said. “They dropped it because they lost control of the issue. It was costing them elections.”
They dropped it until news broke about the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six innocent Americans in that Safeway parking lot.
Not two hours after the gun smoke cleared, the junk speculation began. Few on the right escaped the left’s litany. I was predicting to friends someone eventually would blame Ayn Rand. Her picture was at many rallies. Her fictional hero Howard Roark dynamited buildings in the Fountainhead.
Hell, why not blame Gary Cooper? He played Roark in the 1949 film.
But even before a detailed profile of the shooter emerged, the public was rejecting such theories, polls showed just days after the crime. The left’s drive-by crime experts fell silent, even before Obama’s cautionary memorial service speech. They found out Americans understand much these days about killers and mentally deranged minds.
Unlike the big brains on the left, average Americans have watched a lot of Court TV.
Lowell Cauffiel is a former Detroit journalist. He is the author of five nonfiction crime books, including the New York Times best seller, House of Secrets.