Monday, February 18, 2008

In the Safe Zone: At the heart of governing through crime is an impossible dream of the perfectly safe space

One of the most distinctive features of America's late 20th century engagement with crime as a problem of governance is the relentless recourse to spatial constructions of crime and the possibility of security from it that have at their core the creation of a pure space of safety in which dangerous people have been excluded. This is a distinctive vision of order and security. The great cities of 19th and 20th century America were built to encourage maximum freedom of access to stoke commerce and probably class mobility (of course this was an idea betrayed in a thousand ways). They relied on police and the criminal justice system to deter crime before the fact or correct it afterwards. Since the 1960s Americans have increasingly rejected this model of security and in favor of a very different and extreme model, one that placed crime prevention right at the heart of the polis.

In the 1960s, when I was growing up, it was moving to the suburbs that provided the most palpable expression of this priority and its spatial imperative, an act of family governance, but one affirmed and subsidized by numerous acts of official state support from highway building to FHA loans. As city spaces, especially streets, got painted with the primacy of crime, kids in my neighborhood near the University of Chicago on that city's south side, disappeared to new towns with Scottish names (Glencoe, Flossmoor, etc.) that had no taint of crime and sometimes no real streets.

In the early 2000s, the specter of pedophiles lurking in suburban libraries and through the internet (brilliantly captured in Todd Field's film, Little Children, New Line Cinema 2006) has made that way of creating safe zones increasingly untenable. In its place is coming a steady demand to turn all spaces into zones of prison like security, with surveillance cameras, identification checking, and exclusion of categories of high risk subjects.

California and several other states have added laws requiring certain categories of sex offenders to live more than 2000 feet from spaces associated with children, including schools and parks. But even as these laws, if enforced, would stretch correctional and police resources beyond the breaking point, new demands build to intensify the policing of space on a more cellular level.

In the New York Times, Katie Zezima reports on a new ordinance in Massachusetts aimed at cleansing libraries of any sex offenders.

The problems of over and under inclusion of these laws are well known, and in my view fatal. By excluding a class that will inevitably include lots of people who pose no threat to children, while including the pool of those people willing to rape a child inside a public library who have not been convicted of the predicate offenses necessary for exclusion (the latter inevitably being a larger group then the former), such laws can only mislead parents as to the security of libraries and reduce the odds of other precautions being taken. At the same time, the new security regime will detract from the value of libraries in countless ways, beginning with their already meager resources.

The classic security regime of the great 19th and 20th century cities remains an open option. That does not mean placing a literal cop in every library. But imagine hiring a young person or two to staff the children's library, and to be aware of which kids are going off the bathroom, with whom, as well as helping kids with homework, keeping an eye on misuse of the library computer, etc. Such resources are currently beyond the reach of many libraries that can barely maintain open hours.

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