Friday, May 1, 2009


John F. Thomas, Jr. LAPD suspect in unsolved homicides from the 70s through the present (in arrest photos from '64, '71, '82, and '09)

Why do we fear crime so much? For decades homicide, more than any other crime, has anchored public fear of crime and the penal state and culture of control that fear has sustained. Homicide was the one crime that both popular culture and criminological experts seemed to agree was a unique and severe American problem (a function of anything from too many guns to the elimination of prayer in public schools depending on your politics).

It is true that homicide rates doubled between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s, and remained well above their mid-20th century lows until the crime decline of the late 1990s began to drive them down close to those lows in some cities (New York in particular). But even at its height the homicide wave never moved the actuarial risk of Americans dying of homicide to any great degree, which other than for very specific demographic groups (young African American men) has always been tiny and dwarfed by automobile accidents, heart disease, etc. Instead we need to explore the historical and cultural framework in which homicide became not only a spectacular fear, but a matter of state policy at the highest level.

A bit of that history is on display in Los Angeles case in which authorities now believe a 72 year old LA insurance adjuster, is responsible for a series of homicides, rapes, and burglaries going back to the mid-1960s and including a series of highly publicized rape murders of older single female victims in the 1970s and 1980s known as the "Westside Rapist" murders (read Solomon Moore's reporting in the NYTimes). With victims who are among the most vulnerable imaginable and in the most media saturated city in America, it is not hard to imagine that these unsolved murders drove fear across the state of California which in these very years was adopting an increasingly harsh attitude toward crime.


M said...
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Unknown said...

Less fear doesn't equal less crime, but it equals less leeway for politicians to manipulate the issue for their own benefit, and less leeway for the government to invade our civil liberties under the cover of maintaining law and order. By looking at the issue in general in a more rational way it should (ideally) lead to better policies that can better serve our communities and the people that live in them, such as the TL.

Unknown said...

oops meant "more crime" not less in first sentence.

Jonathan Simon said...

Violent crime is a real problem. What governing through crime has done is to allow the state, mostly the national state, to seize on violence as the emotional core of a vast culture of control that has little direct impact on violence. As Matt puts it, violence is inevitably local, and it needs to be confronted with locally anchored strategies that are not manipulated from the top of the political system for gain.