New York's reputation as a tough city took a major hit in the summer of 2006 when it received the highest score of all the world's big cities in a courtesy test. Even worse, according London's Guardian, "New York loses mean streets image as murder rate plunges."
In 2007, less than 500 people were killed, the fewest since 1963, the first year reliable records were kept. By contrast, 1990, the worst year, a Beirut or Grozny-like 2,245 were killed.
It's true that murders dwindle as the cost of housing increases. The poor, more likely to murder, are driven out and murders, no longer concentrated in the city, become less noticeable as they're dispersed over sub- and exurbia. But, as always, policies and policing are major factors too.
"Criminologists suggest that killings by strangers have become so rare that the police cannot reasonably be expected to stamp out the problem any further," writes Andrew Clark, author of the Guardian article.
New York's top cops inevitably share the secrets of their success at seminars, as well as accept jobs in other cities. Maybe then, murders in cities with rates five to seven times as high, such as Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington, will dwindle down to New York numbers.
But a reduced crime rate may not be in the best interests of the US. After dot.com and housing, do we really want another bubble to burst?
It's true that streets that are no longer mean might result in the criminal justice system being drawn down, like an army after a war. But how does the criminal justice system qualify as a "bubble?"
As crime reporter Art Montague wrote in 2006, "policing is big business." In fact it's almost criminal how many Americans are employed by the criminal justice system. "The uniformed cop on the street is the tip of the human resource iceberg."
Just below the water line are detectives and crime scene investigators. Beneath them are criminalists, who study biological, trace, and impression evidence (fingerprints, footwear impressions, and tire tracks), as well as ballistics.
They coexist with the denizens of a veritable kelp forest of forensics: anthropology, archaeology, entomology, geology, meteorology, odontology, psychology, and toxicology.
Next, Montague writes, is "civilian staff ranging from technicians and auto mechanics to bean counters and file clerks." Multiply that by "levels of jurisdiction -- local, state/provincial [he's Canadian –- Ed.], national." Not to mention by-law enforcement: "Meter maids, dog catchers, anti-smoking and anti-noise sleuths."
Then, after a suspect is arraigned, come the "phalanxes of lawyers and judges, plus their support staff." If a defendant gets off with probation, "More workers and infrastructure are needed to fill this niche in the supply chain."
Meanwhile, much of the pressurized air needed to keep the bubble afloat is provided by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, and Border Patrol.
Then, "local lock-ups, county/provincial jails, state and federal prisons." Parole means "supervisors, their support staff, and their infrastructure," not to mention the staff of halfway houses.
Finally, always ready to do their parts to keep the "budgetary ball rolling," as Montague writes, are "social scientists, trainers, instructors, seminar leaders." Like all bureaucracies, he points out, the criminal justice system self-perpetuates: "In this case, crime and criminals are the feed stock."
All this adds up to a ballpark figure of $100 billion a year. Remember, since we aren't dealing with terrorism, just good, old domestic crime, we're not taking into account the $45 billion budget of the Department of Homeland Security (a whole 'nother bubble).
Come to think of it, the criminal justice system is more than a bubble, it's a cult. The definition of a cult is a group with "a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols."
Criminal justice's ideology is the belief that every criminal can be caught. Its rites are the investigation. Forensics has become the most ritualistic of ceremonial acts.
The service is the trial, the high priest, of course, the judge. An innocent verdict is akin to salvation. A guilty verdict and subsequent incarceration is hell (probation, purgatory).
Every cult needs scripture and that's where the other half of the crime industry comes in. Its pie chart slices are divvied up between crime reporters, crime fiction writers, and TV shows and movies about law enforcement, crime scene investigation, and courts.
Crime dominates entertainment. Even literary authors, to increase chances of publication and subsequent book sales, and directors of independent movies, to enhance box office, use crime as a plot device.
Where would they -- and we, the paying audience that fondles crime, turns it every which way, and drools over it –- be without crime?
The funds allocated to the criminal justice system would obviously be more beneficial to society if diverted to more constructive use. But, imagine if crime were wiped out like a disease that's been cured.
As with the massive research and charity infrastructure left behind by the defeated disease, redeployment to another cause is called for. But a transformation this radical would not only burst our bubble but de-program us from the cult. What's the best way to head a shock to the system like this off at the pass?
For starters, abolish the death penalty. Second, mount an advertising appeal to disadvantaged youth featuring rap, rock, and country artists.
"You know you're gonna wind up in the slam anyway," it might run. "Choose murder and the state will guarantee you a cell with cable TV and broadband."
In other words, we need to do all we can to keep America safe for crime.
But, take heart, there's a mechanism hidden within the heart of murder that will keep it from becoming extinct. In the New York Times article that inspired Clark's Guardian piece, Al Baker writes: "In the eyes of some criminologists, the police will be hard pressed to drive the killing rate much lower, since most killings occur now within the four walls of an apartment or the confines of close relationships.
Murder, says Peter K. Manning, a professor of criminal justice, in the Times article, "is usually 'a private crime, resulting from people who know one another and. . . end up in death struggles at home or in semipublic places.'"
"What are you going to do," he asks, "send cops to every house?"
In other words, as with sodomy or smoking marijuana, you can't keep people from committing murder in the privacy of their own homes.
Still, the day may come when even these last little pools of blood dry up for some unanticipated reason. Who knows? Maybe all the violent death perpetrated or unleashed by us in Iraq will induce a collective revulsion toward murder here at home as well. (We can dream, can't we?)
But, never fear: We can always shift the bulk of our criminal justice overseas. The endless stream of killings in Iraq makes it ripe for law, justice, forensics, and of course, a CSI: Baghdad.
Besides, if law enforcement instead of military fought terrorism, as most national security experts advise, it would be infused with an even greater sense of purpose than when it was fighting common crime.