More Than a Packaging Problem

Taking Note

ANONYMITY IS THE modern way. We spend much of our lives--in the street, on the bus, in the store--with people we don't know. There is a certain comfort in this, a kind of transient absolution from social niceties; after all, we'll never see these people again. Aptly, the sociologist David Riesman '31 has called our culture "the lonely crowd."

Last week, one anonymous face in that crowd laced a bottle of Tylenol capsules with cyanide, killing a young woman. The authorities say that the assailant probably did not know his victim. She was just another face in the crowd.

Such poisonings are truly modern crimes, made possible by the mass media and the size of contemporary communities. Such senseless killings were once perpetrated only on the pages of Dostoyevsky's novels. Nowadays, the news is filled with them.

This latest act of random murder makes one feel strangely vulnerable. We all are users of painkillers and cold remedies. Any one of us could be a victim. Along with the experts, we wonder how to make packages more "tamper-resistant" and how to protect ourselves from anonymous assailants.

BUT STRONGER GLUE and tighter seals will not help. As the chairman of Johnson and Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol, conceded, "No package is tamper-proof." The problem is not package design, but cultural design. To appropriate the hackneyed cry of the gun lobby--tainted pills don't kill people, people kill people.

Why do people kill, and what can we do to stop them? Too often, we appeal to unseen forces to explain behavior. A psychiatrist on one of the local news shows suggested that the Tylenol murderer acted out of "feelings of alienation and frustration and great hostility." But that explains nothing. Why does he (or she) feel "alienated" or "frustrated" or "hostile?" The causes of these pseudo-causes lie outside the person, in the environment. And it is the environment we must change if we are to change the individual's behavior.

Within the memory of our oldest citizens, most Americans lived and died in small, close-knit communities. Residents knew each other, by name or by sight. Anonymity was unusual. A mother in the park was unafraid to scold the mischievous child; she knew his parents. A suspicious-looking stranger in town--or on the block--drew vigilant stares; the community knew its members and its mores.

THE OVERSIZE SCALE of modern societies has militated against the survival of old ways. Apartment buildings have replaced neighborhoods. Small towns have become icons reserved for television commercials. The communities that flourished for most of humankind's existence slowly have become extinct in our own time.

Crime and other misbehavior are the most apparent results of the demise of the small community. Anonymity breeds crime. We ignore the censure of strangers and often fear to rebuke the behavior of those we don't know.

The solution to our problems is the small community. Cities could be reorganized into smaller, more manageable units. Perhaps small towns could even replace the cities. No longer must the small town be characterized by insular ignorance and intolerance. The modern small community need not be an island. The same mass media that perpetuate the anonymity of the lonely crowd could tie together a nation of small communities.

Better boxes, harsher punishments, and more police won't prevent future Tylenol poisonings--or muggings, murders, and rapes, for that matter. A renaissance of the small community in America will.