Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Gated Nightmares

It has all the feel of a Twilight Zone episode, only in a setting that is unmistakably contemporary.  The nightmare is framed by this setting, a house in a gated community.  It could be a very posh house, like the one where Oscar Pistorious lived and admits he shot to death his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp, last week in South Africa [read the Guardian's coverage here]; or a more middle class one, like the South Florida community where George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in 2012 [read the New York Times summary here].  Whatever you make of either mans' story---whether they are liars, self deceivers, or simply loose cogs--- their narratives belong to what David Garland called the "common sense" of "high crime societies."  Their justification/excuse defenses turn on the reasonableness of responding to uncertainty with lethal violence, a reasonableness in turn anchored in the subjective experience of crime and fear of crime.  As Pistorius' defense statement read by his lawyers in court yesterday put it:
"I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes," he said. "I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9 mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night."
 It is a nightmare that anyone who has lived in late modern society can recreate at will, from a thousand half remembered films or tv scripts if not from personal experience.  Its the reason that lots of people you know and love, may be you too, keep a 9mm gun next to their bed.  What makes their nightmare complete is that even by their own accounts they killed people who posed no threat to them, in a place they chose to be in large part to keep them safe from crime.   And now they face the possibility of the ultimate contradiction in our "culture of control" (thanks again to Garland for the term), a long sentence of imprisonment during which they are likely to be exposed to cruel, inhuman, and degrading circumstances (although South African law at least is more proactive in protecting Pistorius against that, although I wouldn't want to bet on its practical implementation).

Gated communities promise to wrap consumers in an extra layer of security unprovided by the state and mutual self help of citizens.  But once embedded in such an environment, insecurity got worst.  George Zimmerman felt the need to become his own vigilante patrol officer within the gates and Oscar Pistorius kept himself armed against the burglars in his mind.  Again Pistorius' narrative, whether genuine or artfully contrived, speaks to (and shows us) the way our security measures implode on us, removing some threats so our minds can focus on others:
"I heard a noise and realised that someone was in the bathroom. I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside."
The gates around his house only made the absence of gates on his windows a vulnerability.  The hired men who labored to make his luxury home even more secure and comfortable opened yet more pathways for crime.

We should not pity Oscar Pistorius or George Zimmerman, at least not more than their victims.  But if we fail to recognize their nightmare, as ours, we can expect more victims.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Myth of Urban Insecurity

In March 1964, when 28 year old bartender Kitty Genovese was stalked and murdered by an assailant as she tried to enter her Queens apartment in New York, America was just beginning the great rise in violent crime that would shape the next four decades.  It was not so much her murder that unnerved New Yorkers and other Americans at a moment when America's cities were only beginning to suffer the great suburban exodus that would see many of them lose as much half their population, as the widely circulated claim that her murder could have been prevented if the dozens of her neighbors that reportedly heard her screams had called the police or done something more directly to intervene.  This claim became famous, because Abe Rosenthal, then still starting his career at the New York Times, wrote a large feature article and then with great speed a book promoting it.  The book became a bestseller and helped convince urban Americans that safety from violent crime required a suburban cul de sac. (I've written about this more here).

This week in the Times, Leslie Kaufman wrote a feature about the digital reissue of the Rosenthal book that focused on the fact the fact that the book is being republished with no acknowledgment that a great deal of evidence has now accumulated that the horrifying story of witness indifference was false, that no more than a handful of witnesses may have heard her screams due to the cold early spring weather and the fact that Genovese managed to crawl toward a back entrance of her building, but also into a less visible area where the assailant resumed his lethal attack (read it here).

The episode offers intriguing suggestions about the fear of crime in the 1960s that helped create our culture of control.

According to Kaufman, Rosenthal got the story in an interview with New York's police commissioner and then ran with it.  The role that urban police played in undermining confidence in the safety of their own cities is, in my view, one of the great untold stories of America's urban crisis.

The media, like the police, seem to have viewed urban crime fear as a profitable enterprise.

Rather than testing Rosenthal's thesis against the real facts, social scientists of the era ran with it to create a highly productive (for academic purposes) but dubious "bystander syndrome" which holds that when witnesses to a person in need believe others are available to respond, they are less likely to respond.  Throughout our urban crisis and "war on crime" social science has played a mostly negative role, promoting the view that rehabilitation in prison did not work; promoting the view that police patrols could not stop crime; and promoting the view that urban neighbors are unreliable.