The Crime Column's Crime: False Premise
(Printed in the Scranton Times on 9/22/94 as a guest columnist.)
In Joseph X. Flannery's column "Times Were More Pleasant When Society Policed Itself" (Times 9/4/94), the arguments and conclusions are so illogical that I'm not sure where to begin. The entire column is based on an incorrect premise, which then make his generalities misleading and speculative.
I would expect his premise, that "crime is rampant" and "has crept into every nook and cranny of our country", from anyone but a journalist. Apparently, Flannery believes that the frequency of sensationalized reports of crime equals the frequency of crime.
In "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?", ABC correspondent John Stossel reported that the crime rate hasn't changed significantly in the last twenty-five years, only our consciousness of it.
In the 5/9/94 Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson came to similar conclusions in The Triumph of the Psycho-Fact. He writes that, "We should not overreact to every ghoulish incident or conceivable danger. The abduction of Polly Klaas late last year was horrifying, but so was the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child in 1932."
In the 8/25/94 Scranton Times, the Boston Police Department reported that serious crime is at a 20-year low locally. The trend has been the same in Scranton and the rest of the country.
Flannery writes that the reason for this "rampant" crime is that "families . . . are falling apart." Maybe some are but what does that have to do with anything. The "family values" argument cost Bush an election, thankfully. (I voted for Perot, but only because I didn't want Bush or Clinton, and "none of the above" wasn't a choice.) I've yet to see any study that says that "traditional" families produce mostly good people and "non-traditional" families produce mostly bad people. It's not the setting; it's the ethics and sense of responsibility instilled by parent(s) or guardian(s).
Next, he writes that back in "those years", the only problems "usually involved a family squabble." Back then, society trivialized these "squabbles" -- now they're called spousal and child abuse -- along with alcoholism and racism.
The "good old days" always seem better until an objective look is taken. For more details, please read The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz (NY: HarperCollins, 1992).
Morality, religion, and the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas are mentioned as possible solutions. Flannery alludes that more religious morality needs to be taught. But what religion and whose religious morality? Jerry Falwell's. Pat Robertson's. Jesus Christ's. Mohammed's.
The problem with teaching religious morality is that different religions and people have widely different views about what is "moral". Religious beliefs have no place in civil code. Believe what you will, it is your inalienable right, but teach and practice ethics and responsibility.
Another item mentioned in the article was how "society policed itself" in the past. If only this were true. If adults actually had the freedom to do what they wanted as long as no harm is done to the person or property of other non-consenting adults, times would indeed be "more pleasant."
Imagine having to be responsible to yourself and your God for your actions as long as no harm is done to the person or property of other non-consenting adults. Most lawyers would be unemployed and the jails would hold only the worst of criminals.
Finally, he attacks television and movies for their sex, violence, language, and generally non-moral content. I assume that this advocates censorship and I agree as long as I get to be the censor. However, no rational person would consent to that, so the classic argument about censorship starts -- who decides what gets censored. The only reasonable answer is that parents decide for their minor children and adults decide for themselves. I want no one except myself making decisions about what I can see or read. As Flannery almost correctly asserts, things would be more pleasant if we were allowed to police ourselves.
Flannery's 9/4/94 column is another example of the journalistic insinuations that frighten and misinform the public, who then use this information to make voting decisions that then affect policy for years. But then, this type of journalism sells one hell of a lot of newspapers, doesn't it.
John L. Ferri