Commentary

Crime: An outrage or a mere problem?

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One day last week, an 82-year-old woman named Wilma Ball was stabbed to death in her home at Lake James. According to a sheriff’s deputy, it was the first homicide in Steuben County since 2016.

About the same time, a man was shot to death on the east side of Indianapolis. It was the 118th homicide so far this year in the city, already on track to beat last year’s record-setting year.

I don’t know if anything profound can be learned from that contrast, but it’s stuck in my head now, so I have to think about it.

One thing I do know is that officials in the rural county and the big city both are talking about getting to the bottom of the murders, but I doubt they mean quite the same thing.

In Steuben County, I suspect, they are treating the homicide as an act to be punished. In Indianapolis, they are considering it a problem to be solved. There is a world of difference.

On one of the cable talk-a-thons on Sunday, a segment was devoted to the rising violent crime rate in America’s biggest cities. It featured mini interviews with Biden Administration aide Cedric Richmond and Indiana congressman and Republican Study Committee leader Jim Banks.

Richmond ticked off the usual liberal talking points about the cause of crime: the proliferation of guns, poverty and the lack of opportunities, Covid-related issues. Banks reiterated conservatives’ favorite themes of the proliferation of gangs, police demoralization and lack of prosecution.

So predictable, so superficial, so unhelpful.

I’m not suggesting we ignore crime-prevention efforts, either the ones showing how we can protect ourselves from criminals or the ones aiming to ameliorate the conditions that can breed crime. Each effort can help, some more than others, and each of us can list approaches we like and don’t like.

But the more we concentrate on crime as a problem, the less we focus on crime as an act. And if we pass a certain point, we become so obsessed with the problem that we can all but forget about the act.

I think we’ve passed that point in our biggest cities, including Indianapolis, and lost track of what the law is and is supposed to do.

It’s not that hard.

It’s about what we will tolerate and will not tolerate as a society, and the law draws the line between the two. We have a whole criminal justice system to deal with those who cross the line — police to nab the likely suspects, prosecutors and defenders to argues their cases, judges and juries to determine their fates.

And every time we show we are serious about someone crossing that line, the more we deter others from trying to cross it. Every time we ignore or make excuses for those who cross the line, the more we blur it and defeat its purpose.

I don’t know if they will solve their murder in Steuben County, but I have no doubt they will throw everything they have at it. At if it does stay on the books, it will surely haunt more than one public safety official for a long, long time.

According to Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department statistics, nearly 63 percent of the 245 homicides committed in 2020 remained unsolved and are likely to stay so. It’s probably not fair to conclude that residents of Indy are numb to that fact, but I can say from my visits there that I sense more resignation than outrage.

Heinous acts spark outrage. Problems to be analyzed do not.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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