Commentary Magazine

Crime in America, by Ramsey Clark

The Moralist


Crime in America.
by Ramsey Clark.
Simon and Schuster. 436 pp. $6.95.

One of the major political and intellectual problems of the 1960’s was to find and defend a constructive, responsible position on the issue of predatory crime, a position that recognized the gravity of the problem without feeding the hysteria about it and that offered approaches which avoided either the shrill demands of the far Right for the impeachment of Supreme Court justices or the blind self-destructiveness of the far Left in its opposition to any anti-crime measure because it would be “anti-black” or “anti-young.”

Ramsey Clark, one might have supposed, was ideally suited for that difficult task. A soft-spoken Texan, thoughtful and liberal, with six years of experience in the Justice Department before President Johnson made him Attorney General, Clark managed on many occasions to reveal a capacity for fairness combined with determination that was reassuring to those confused or angered by the excessively ideological nature of the public clamor about crime. Clark created the federal strike forces against organized crime, but he also stimulated a renewed effort to make the Federal Bureau of Prisons more rehabilitative. He also coordinated the security measures at the October 1967 peace march on the Pentagon with the result that there were a minimum of incidents.

His new book on crime certainly makes an effort to strike the same balance, but in this case in vain. It is an inadequate book. There is no other way to put it. As a serious analysis of crime and the ways to cope with it, it is a failure. As a statement of personal moral and political conviction, it conveys a message that will reassure those who wish to avoid coming to grips with the crime problem and will disappoint those who wish to think seriously about it.

The mistake, I think, was to write the book in the first place. The problem of crime is such that careful analysis, precision of thought, accuracy of facts, and grappling with problems of feasibility are essential. Anything less will perpetuate errors, feed preconceptions, or offer illusory hopes. But an active political figure, one mentioned as a Presidential dark horse, and a man who has already begun to attract a coterie of dedicated and articulate followers, cannot write a serious book. He does not have the time or (usually) the skills. A political man inevitably writes a political book.

A political book can, of course, have merit. If it captures the public imagination, unites formerly divided groups, or defines the leading ideas of the time, it can be as useful as any other political symbol; and today there is little doubt that unifying symbols and thoughts are very much needed. Judged by this test, Crime in America may have a limited success, but only a limited one. Picking a public fight with J. Edgar Hoover not only makes it harder to secure Clark’s objective of Mr. Hoover’s resignation, it also puts Mr. Clark on the losing end of a popularity contest. Thus the book will be seen as not even political in the best sense, but as partisan.

Taking the book for what it claims to be—observations on the nature, causes, prevention, and control of crime, to paraphrase its subtitle—the overall impression is of a volume in which the tone is consistent but the details inconsistent. The tone can perhaps be summarized as follows: There are many kinds of crime, of which street crime is not the most important, and they can only be dealt with by refusing to tolerate injustice. This requires getting tough on white-collar crime and other forms of exploitation but avoiding repression when dealing with ghetto crime. Only massive efforts to eliminate poverty and racism combined with reforms designed to make the criminal-justice system fairer are appropriate responses to the latter.



Many readers will disagree with this summary of Mr. Clark’s views, including perhaps Mr. Clark himself. Many will point to specific observations or recommendations that are at variance with this summary. And that precisely is the problem—the book contains individual sentences supportive of a wide range of mutually inconsistent positions. The first half of Chapter 3, for example, criticizes crime statistics sharply, observing that “we know little, we misconceive much.” The second half of the chapter is an analysis of crime based on the (presumably) discredited statistics. We are told on page 147 that we should require college training for the police as part of an effort to professionalize them; we are told on page 159 that minority-group members must be enlisted in the police in great numbers; but we are not told on any page how we deal with the fact that higher educational requirements will reduce minority-group enlistments.

Major urban areas need a “single police service,” we are told on page 132, but seven pages before we were told that “participatory democracy” and “community control” of the police (as well as other local services) are important. Now, in practice one can imagine various ways of combining the provision of certain police services on a metropolitan-wide basis with neighborhood or community control of other police services. But there is no suggestion in the book of how or even whether this should be done, leaving the reader to decide for himself if he likes the concept of a metropolitan police or prefers it to a neighborhood police.

Even the question of whether street or violent crime is important enough to worry about is left unclear. On this subject, what Mr. Clark does with crime statistics is at least as indefensible as what his rival, Mr. Hoover, has done. On page 49 we are told that since only one person in 400 was the victim of a crime of violence in 1967, the average individual’s chance of being a victim was “once in 400 years.” If one assumes that only half of all violent crimes are reported, then the individual’s chances are “once in 200 years.” The implication is clear—what are we so excited about?

One thing we should be excited about is the misrepresentation embodied in these figures. If the average person has each year a one-in-200 chance of being a victim, then his lifetime chances of being a victim are the sum of these annual probabilities over his life expectancy. If the average man lives seventy years, then his chances of being a victim of a violent crime at some time are seven in twenty, or about one in three, not one in 200. And for black females, where the estimated rate of victimization by violent crime is 8.5 per 1,000 population, or about one in 120, the lifetime chances are better than one in two.



Mr. Clark ends his book with an epilogue entitled “A Passion for Justice.” And many of the passions he expresses are worthwhile—his deep concern over the failure of the American correctional system, his disgust at lawmakers who think that crime bills should chiefly provide money for the police to buy more hardware, his opposition to the misleading view that Supreme Court decisions have caused much of the increase in crime, his criticism of the incompetence of the National Guard, his rejection of the “outside-agitator” theory of the ghetto riots of 1965-67, and his skepticism toward the utility of the death penalty. But the passion that one looks for and does not find is a passion that evinces some sense of the horror of being a ghetto resident whose apartment is burglarized weekly, whose wife cannot walk home alone and unafraid from the supermarket, and whose neighborhood is devastated by heroin addicts living and stealing in the streets. Mr. Clark appreciates the plight of those victimized by poverty and segregation, but he does not seem to appreciate the extent to which those same people are unwilling to defer dealing with crime until various (unspecified) measures designed to reduce poverty and eliminate segregation take effect.

Mr. Clark’s treatment of narcotics is symptomatic of this perspective. While the chapter is hard to summarize because it says many different things, it leaves the reader with the impression that heroin addiction is a socially less important problem, than youthful experimentation with newer synthetic drugs such as “speed.” More of the chapter is devoted to an argument for legalizing marijuana than to a discussion of alternative ways to handle heroin. I agree with Mr. Clark’s view that “Operation Intercept,” the Nixon administration’s effort to stop the flow of marijuana across the Mexican border, was probably pointless and certainly a diversion of resources from more important drug problems. What I find hard to understand, however, is his dismissal of any comparable effort to shut off the flow of heroin into the United States or his easy (and unwarranted) assertion that reducing the supply of one drug will lead to increased use of another. If, as he says, marijuana users cut off from their supplies will turn to heroin (I am not sure that is true), then all the more reason for either reducing the supply of heroin or treating marijuana as a drug with harmful effects.

Even more distressing are Mr. Clark’s confident assertions that since drug addiction is an illness, “medical science can discover cures and provide care” or later that “we know that corrections can rehabilitate.” Now, in fact, we do not know either of these things. We hope medical science can solve the drug problem, and experiments with methadone are encouraging (though not for all addicts), but no one knows enough yet to be confident of anything. There have been a few promising correctional experiments, and I fully share Mr. Clark’s view that corrections is the most neglected though the most fruitful area for social intervention in dealing with the criminal, but I have to say that I do not know whether in any large numbers and for most criminals, corrections can rehabilitate. I wish I did know.



If this book is essentially a call to arms, a demand for public concern, then some would say my niggling reservations are out of place. Perhaps. If the book succeeds in mobilizing public concern about our criminal-justice system, I will regret and publicly apologize for every unkind thing I have written here. But I suspect that this is not the effect the book will have, and I must say that many of those who thus far have waxed enthusiastic over it have hardly expressed much concern in the past for criminal justice.

What the book really is saying—and why I believe that reservations, exceptions, and rejoinders are in order—is that all we need to solve the problem of crime is will power and money. That is certainly what Tom Wicker of the New York Times thinks the book says. He describes, in a hyperbolic introduction, Ramsey Clark’s as “the most revolutionary voice in America today.” Revolutionary? A man who is in essence recommending the anti-crime program of Lyndon B.Johnson?

The reason Wicker finds Clark revolutionary is that, as Clark keeps saying, “it is all a matter of will.” But it is not. The decade of the 1960’s should have borne witness to the bankruptcy of that idea. Almost every plan for dealing with poverty and discrimination and unemployment anyone could think of was tried, and yet little happened, or rather little that was intended happened. The culture of poverty and the culture of crime (they overlap substantially but not, as some think, entirely) have proved distressingly resistant to most of our favorite ideas—especially to the injection of money, whether in the form of public-housing projects, urban renewal, aid to families of dependent children, community-action programs, model cities, or anticrime plans. It was under Attorney General Clark that we first began to spend federal money in earnest on law enforcement, and it would be a brave man who could say that the extra money did much more than buy us more of the same. More accurately, it would be a foolhardy man who claimed to know what, if anything, we bought at all. The consequences of the expenditure of money on law enforcement are not known, and no administration, Republican or Democratic, has made a serious effort to find out

Putting the problem of crime (or of poverty) as simply a matter of “will” perpetuates the erroneous view that these are issues to be settled by ideological formulations, not by practical experimentation with some reasonable effort to assess the results of those experiments. For if it is only a question of will, then it is hard to argue with those who say that the “will” required is one that will curb crime by ending the “permissiveness” and “moral bankruptcy” of our society. If we are to deal with crime at all responsibly, we must try to avoid blaming our present state of affairs on ethical failings. If the issue is moralized, then I suspect that it will be Mr. Agnew, not Mr. Clark, who will be most successful in placing the blame.



But it is, of course, precisely this moral tone of Mr. Clark’s book, rather than any of its concrete recommendations, that explains its success. The broadest themes of the book are adumbrated in its first sentence—“Crime reflects the character of a people.” That character, we are told, has been formed—or rather misformed—by the nature of a technologically complex mass society. We are dehumanized by technology and population, with family breakdown, individual anonymity, and the floundering of old ideals the result. The young are especially victimized by this process and rightly critical of it; they are “powerless” in the face of “unreachable and unresponsive” institutions. To deal with this, we must “distribute power” and involve students in decisions that affect them. Until this happens, “we will have mass demonstrations with their potential for violence.” But we should not worry too much about that potential, because for all the damage done, “youth achieved more change for the better” in the 1960’s than has been achieved heretofore in this century. In any case, “no university will be destroyed by student violence.”

We have read all that before. Theodore Roszak summarizes the entire argument in the subtitle to his book, The Making of a Counter Culture—“reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful opposition.” But there is a difference: Roszak rejects the view that the technocracy can solve the problems its existence has created, while Clark believes technology can be our salvation: “There is no greater evidence of the total neglect of the criminal justice system than our failure to apply science to the solution of crime.”

There is little point in asking such obvious questions as how can technology change the character of a people, or by what means are we to reconcile distributing power to satisfy those eager to have it while at the same time centralizing it enough to permit the needed changes in our police, courts, and correctional institutions to go forward? Little point, because “will” and a passion for justice are more important than intellectual clarity or practical feasibility. And judging from the success of Mr. Clark’s book, perhaps in one sense he is right: in an era in which virtue is taken to mean having “authentic” and apocalyptic feelings, perhaps it is inevitable that any appeal to the citizenry will above all seek to reassure them that they are right to feel a deep sense of outrage at “the system.” Only if the problems can be described as insoluble can one hope, it would seem, to make anyone believe that new efforts toward solution should be undertaken.

Clark’s book is a minor and impermanent example of the current debasement of public discourse. If there is any tragedy here, it is that he failed to take the opportunity to give a careful and sober account of his modest but constructive accomplishments while Attorney General, accomplishments for which he can rightly claim credit. Such a book would not have sold many copies, but it would have revealed far more accurately than Crime in America how one deals seriously with the complex and obstinate reality of our criminal-justice system.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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