In thinking about the American idea, we decided to revisit a concept we first took up in these pages 25 years ago.
The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.
Americans value both order and freedom, and drawing a line between the two is no easy task. This may seem especially true where the more routine aspects of public order are concerned: How much freedom must be sacrificed in order to have quiet streets free of graffiti, aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, and teenage gangs? Taken alone, few of these kinds of disorder constitute major crimes—but taken together, they deeply worry people who want to go about their public business secure in the sense that our society, and not some disorderly faction within it, controls public spaces.
In 1982, we argued in this magazine that the police should take public disorder as seriously as they take criminal conduct. We urged them to resume doing what was once one of their major tasks: constraining the public activity of drunks, panhandlers, prostitutes, and gangs. And to this should be added a new assault on graffiti.
We suggested two rationales for this change: First, people feel threatened by public disorder; second, the chance that greater order would reduce crime rates. The first statement is obviously true; the second was a conjecture that has still been only partially tested.