The Onion famously dubbed Rudulph Giuliani as a candidate for the President of 9/11, but we have suggested that what his candidacy is about more than anything else is being President of a place where crime and the potential for violence are the dominant features of reality. This is the place that most Americans before 9/11 feared that they lived (or had only barely escaped by moving to a gated community). This is the place that 9/11 seemed to all at once confirm and reframe as threatened even more by a global network of terror. Indeed it is because he understands so well the deep conflation between the America which had gradually come to reimagine itself through the problem of crime, and the America which has come into self-consciousness since 9/11 that Giluliani is such a formidable candidate.
Where can you find the most vibrantly concentrated image of America as a society in the grip (and thrall) of predatory crime? Either in the representation of urban space in the recent series of Spiderman movies, or in Giuliani's representation of the city he governed in the mid-1990s. They are both in fact the same (imaginary) place, New York City in its recent past. Consider how Giuliani describes New York in a story by Adam Nagourney about "Giuliani's New York" in today's times.
Mr. Giuliani recalls the days when, as he remembers them, a New Yorker couldn’t walk up Third Avenue without being on the lookout for muggers, of the blocks of dirty book stores and prostitutes, of public urination and pot-smoking. We accepted pornography, prostitution as just commonplace,” he said to a conservative audience in Washington last spring. “We accepted street-level drug dealing as something we couldn’t do anything about.”
“There was a tremendous amount of crime. It was the crime capital of America. It was a devastated city in many ways. It was a depressed city.”
Of course New York is also a metaphor for many of the things Giuliani hopes his Republican primary audiences will share is repulsion for, e.g., Democratic politicians, liberals, unions, etc, but among these it is crime that Giuliani returns to again and again.
It is the city he has tamed and the place where he stared down — as he tells appreciative Republicans to hearty applause — liberals, criminals, welfare recipients, big-spending City Council members and the editorial writers of The New York Times.
By focusing on the impression that New York was overwhelmed with crime (the very same picture of the city you see in the Spider fables where robbers and burglars are constantly at work beyond the eyes of the feckless police) Giuliani can indeed find an source of support for his form of rule that cuts across the conservative versus liberal divide in America. New York was indeed experiencing its highest homicide rates of the 20th century during the very early years of the 1990s. But virtually the entire extent of this violence surge was experienced by the poorest handful of precincts in the city. What you could find in Manhattan and the gentrifying districts of Brooklyn was marijuana smoking and public pan handling. Still, many liberal New Yorkers that I knew shared this Giuliani/Spiderman view of their city in the 1990s and supported his crime war on the pot smokers and squeegee men. Whether it in fact helped deepen a decline in serious and violent crime that had already begun under Mayor Dinkins but which reached epoch levels in the Giuliani years is an interesting criminological question which my colleague Frank Zimring provides the best overall analysis of in his book The Great American Crime Decline. Still, its the fact that both conservatives and liberals can nod their heads in agreement when he talks this way about crime that that makes Rudy Giuliani such a formidable candidate for the White House.