When Two Lives Collide

AMERICA

"A NEOCONSERVATIVE is a liberal who's been mugged." That's what our right-wing friends would have us believe, in the wake of the nation's tilt toward Republicana in the last two years. Assaulted by gloomy realities, once-idealistic progressives have apparently junked their dreams, resigned themselves to the fact that high inflation, unemployment, and crime rates are inevitable, and started, voting Right. Statistically, it's not an unreasonable diagnosis. The districts most inflicted with staggering crime rates and economic "misery indexes" turned against the incumbent Democrats most sharply in 1980. That they abandoned long, unbroken liberal traditions so readily seemed to suggest the fragility of ideals and world-views in the face of hardship.

The acid test of that sort of causal theory is whether it works at the individual level, whether harsh personal misfortune really causes epiphany or just pragmatic accommodation. The jury is still out on which one 1980's political turnabout represented, but I'll hazard a guess that it was the latter, lesser phenomenon. That verdict's not based on any sophisticated contentions that the nation's temporary economic woes did in Jimmy Carter, or that the Republican resurgence was a mere public relations coup capitalizing on the ineptitude of the incumbents--though there's much in both analyses. No--it rests on a more impressionistic claim, one grounded only in personal experience. It's just hard to believe that even the nastiest of incidents--or the deepest of recessions--could invariably turn liberals into neoconservatives.

I was mugged last week, held up at gunpoint in New York's Penn Station early Sunday morning. I was relieved of my money and watch by a man who didn't hesitate to point his weapon at me repeatedly to remind me he meant business. (It wasn't necessary.) For the guy who robbed me--a slim Black man about 25 years old, smoothly dressed and very much acting the role of the confident mugger--the incident will probably fade from memory quickly. New York's finest and their armed-robbery expertise notwithstanding, there's not a chance in hell he'll be caught.

But when you're the victim, you think a lot. For the first few hours afterwards, your mind is bombarded with competing emotions, all uncontrollable. First relief that you're alive. Then rage that you could be such an easy target, that anyone could so totally and suddenly strip you of any personal autonomy, even for only 90 seconds. Then frustration--that you've got no money left before boarding for a five-hour trip to Boston, that you've just parted with an expensive and meaningful timepiece, that the police are never around when you need them (it took 25 minutes to meet up with them--in Penn Station).

Then reflection sets in, and it doesn't let up for days. In the end, you accept the incident as an unfortunate price you have to pay for freedom of movement, as a fact of life for those who choose to live in the richest yet poorest, busiest yet seamiest city in the nation. You do wonder for a while whether it's worth it. But in the end, you don't necessarily change your political mindset or your assumptions about why men commit crimes and what can be done about it.

FOR ME, that meant sticking more firmly than ever to my progressive guns. If anything, I feel more comfortable with my liberal answers to criminal justice than before, when I'd feared they might be only theoretical. Then again, a conservative might just as easily find is a similar traumatic incident confirmation of his pre-existing views. Which is just the point. Those who take their views seriously are probably least likely to have them overturned by an isolated incident--or for that matter, by a short-term peal or valley in inflation or the interest rate.

The more I thought about my Penn Station encounter, the more I had to dismiss the lock-em-up, cut-their-balls-off solutions so tempting during those first moments of rage. My assailant was a smoothie, not a thug. That was plain from the way he discreetly sidled up to me to show his gun, from his craftiness in taking only those items that could not incriminate him (no cards, just cash), and from his use of icy threats rather than force. No Hobbesian brute this--he seemed instead a rational, calculating man acting out of self-interest, not instinct.

I see no reason to believe the get-tough strategies towards crime being pushed by the New and Old Right would rechannel that self-interest more effectively. Maybe my mugger was poor. Maybe he was recently unemployed. Or--who knows?--maybe he'd recently been deprived of food stamps or other aid by the President's austere social budget.

I'll never know exactly why holding people up was, for him, the most palatable money-making alternative. But I'm pretty sure of this: that threatening him with longer, swifter or more certain jail sentences wouldn't make it easier for him to find work. They'd hardly assuage his frustration with "the system"--more likely, those conservative panaceas would only aggravate him more. Only steps that strike at the root of the problem, that try to give the rational criminal real alternative to crime, seem to make sense.

SO I FIND myself returning to the more liberal proposals I favored before encountering Crime in Penn Station. Effective education at an early age might expand the opportunities of the poor. Stepped-up support for the basic desires of the needy--an about-face from Reaganomics--could muffle the desperation that kindles crime. Job creation and real incentives for job training would rechannel the self-interest that makes men muggers. And a greater focus on rehabilitation--not on maintaining congested prisons whose squalor breeds frustration and recidivism--might leave some hope for those who originally go astray.

Which is, approximately, what I believed before last Sunday. Sure, I'm more convinced today that many of our urban criminals aren't intrinsically evil, just cornered. Being mugged doesn't really make you scrap your outlook or change your politics, today's pundits notwithstanding. But it does make you sit back and think about just what can happen when two lives collide. That, in itself, is something of an epiphany.