Look at terrorism. When TWA Flight 800 blew up over Long Island in 1996, President Clinton took emergency measures that included stepped-up scanning equipment for air travelers (unless they're Patrick Kennedy and don't feel like walking through it), and a weird sort of bomb-questionnaire that only a non-terrorist could fail. ("Did you pack your own bags for this trip?" "No, actually. Akhmad's Hezbollah Luggage-Packing and Semtex-Installation Service in Kabul was kind enough to pack it for me!") Such a response might fall afoul of the DO NOT JOKE! signs that went up in the 80s. The point, though, is that investigators soon found it highly unlikely that terrorists were responsible for the explosion on Flight 800. Did anyone turn around and say, "We overreacted"? No. Your grandchildren will be answering those stupid questions about whether they packed their own bags and whether their luggage has been out of their sight.
But airports have always been a more or less authoritarian environment, not to mention a prudish one. (The gin-and-tonic recipe at the San Francisco airport, for instance, is unlike anything I've ever seen: roughly one part gin to 25 parts tonic.) So it may be more instructive to see how people are responding to normal crime in normal places?neighborhoods. Let's look at the matter of bikes. My own bike riding years were the mid-1970s, which, by any statistical measure of crime we now possess, were the most dangerous years of the American century, with murder rates and rates of drug consumption at multiples of their present levels. And we rode our bikes everywhere. The most shocking observation in David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise is that bicycle sales have fallen sharply?and that the most probable explanation for that decline is that parents are too scared to let their children ride bikes into other neighborhoods. This is in a country enjoying a crime rate lower than it has been at any time since the average parent was born. Note, too, that the average kid who does ride a bike is forced?whether by local ordinance or by those same hyper-fastidious parents?to wear a football helmet. I live a block from one of Washington's nicer elementary schools. I never see children walking alone to school, the way we did back in the Golden Age of Crime.
A confluence of three worrisome trends may make our next overreaction to crime a really dangerous one. First, the unbelievable timidity of middle-class parents regarding their children has softened them up to all sorts of minor government intrusions?those bike helmets, the seatbelt laws, mandatory car seats (in Washington, DC, mothers can be restrained by law enforcement officials from leaving a maternity hospital with her own child unless she can demonstrate to the hospital that she has a car seat in good working order), metal detectors and locker searches in high schools?that any previous generation would have regarded as un-American. And these are teensy-weensy inconveniences. What happens when there's a major threat, whether real or ginned up by the media? Chances are they'd be willing to accept major intrusions, like having the Army on the street.
The other day on my drive in to work I was listening to a DC rock station, and the three DJs were discussing their weekends. One mentioned that he'd seen a father out driving with his children and they didn't have their seatbelts on.
"Oh, that's scary," said DJ Two. "What happened?" "Well, a guy drove up and yelled, 'Hey! Put seatbelts on those kids!'" "And what did the other guy say?" chimed in DJ Three. "You're not gonna believe this. He said, 'Mind your own business!'" "That's scary," said Two. "That's sad," said Three. "What do you do in a situation like that?" One asked. Three replied, "I think you just?if you have a cellphone, you call the police and have them send someone by to take care of it. With a guy like that, you never know what he's going to do."
The second trend that makes our next anticrime backlash something to worry about is that a politics has developed that preys on these worried voters. You scare people into giving up their freedoms. Leftists and libertarians trace its origin to the War on Drugs, but it seems clear that this politics is now the specialty of the Democratic Party. Al Gore gets tarred as the most brazen practitioner of it, but that's only because he's become such an oratorical caricature, with his "risky" this and "reckless" that. In fact, Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village is the urtext of this kind of politics. Hillary's basic intellectual move resembles those class presentations in which some underinformed seventh-grader rides a syllogism through an increasingly absurd and unfamiliar landscape, as in: "Sand is the most important thing in the world. Glass is made out of sand, and without glass, you couldn't retain the heat in this building. And since it's below zero today, if not for sand, we'd all be lying dead at our desks."
"All these things are related," said Hillary at a speech I saw her give a year ago. "It's my hope we can start thinking about these things in a broader way." Hillary's syllogisms all involve using "the children" to prove that anyone who does something that she (Hillary) dislikes the slightest bit is wreaking outright violence on defenseless boys and girls. So she'll start with the proposition that "If you're going to get children off to school, you need healthy parents." And since education is a "bedrock of our democracy," our actual survival as a nation is imperiled when parents engage in the wrong kind of "parenting." You see? Dad may just look like he's smoking a Camel, but he's actually compromising national security.
Or to take another one, studies have shown that malnourished children do worse in school. Children who do worse in school have higher rates of dropping out. Dropouts have higher rates of committing crime. So in the Hillary worldview, there's a very thin line between the mother who buys her son a Twinkie and, say, Jeffrey Dahmer. A people that accepts Hillary's style of reasoning as a legitimate political one is ripe to have its liberties, large and small, stripped from it.
The final trend that could come into play to make the next anticrime crackdown more authoritarian is technology. Video cameras are now posted in high-crime intersections all over England; Washington, DC, is using them to catch people who run red lights. But it's amazing what a low-tech crime-fighting device the video camera now appears. If fancier new cars now use satellite technology to tell you exactly where you are at all times, there's no reason the government can't do the same with criminals?and others. Basically, to LoJack the whole population with bracelets or implants.
Fortunately no one would stand for this: not in this low-crime environment. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be worried. The past decade has seen a revolution in all sorts of social relations. We've gained a lot. Let's hope that an ability to keep our heads when things turn slightly sour?during rising crime, or rising unemployment, or inflation?isn't one of the things we've lost.