It's A Crime The Way We Scare Ourselves To Death

AUSTIN - Since it's notoriously difficult to prove a negative, I've hesitated to write about a long-held thesis of mine, which is that we think crime in this country is a worse problem than it actually is. I've been pleased to find some expert opinions recently reinforcing my pet theory and finally feel emboldened to speak up.

The chief trouble with trying to make this case is that it starts out sounding as though one is trying to dismiss the reality of crime in America, which is not only bad but getting worse. But it still is not as bad as most of us think it is - and therein lie some perils as frightening as the possibility of getting mugged, robbed, murdered or raped.

The villains in this case are our Usual Suspects - the media. While I would not claim that newspapers are blameless in spreading the notion that murderous monsters lurk around every corner, I still think television deserves most of the credit. Local television news is particularly prone to lead off every night with some account of blood and gore all over the floor, and if there's none available locally, scenic gore shots from almost anywhere will do.

The current vogue for true-crime programs on network television is reinforcing the usual neck-high tide of fictional mayhem on the tube. Try counting up in the course of a week the number of women you see on television in a state of terror as the footsteps get closer and closer or the pane of glass is suddenly smashed. This

happens on television more often than people go to the bathroom or apply deodorant.

"One of the worst things affecting our feeling of safety was probably the development of the video camera," James Fox, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, told The New York Times. "Fear of crime reacts to perceptions, and they are mainly based on television and news reporting."

So what's the downside, you ask. Even if danger doesn't lurk behind every bush, there's enough of it out there so that people should be cautious, no? The problem is that fear corrodes people's trust in one another, their sense of community and their willingness to help one another when trouble does come. The famous case of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was stabbed to death in New York 20 years ago while 37 neighbors looked on and did not even bother to call the police is perhaps the most famous example of fear-bred indifference.

Fear of crime also poisons our constitutional heritage of carefully guarded rights of the accused. Fear makes people do terrible things to one another - and to themselves.

The late John Henry Faulk, the great Texas freedom-fighter, used to tell a story about his days in law enforcement, back when he was captain in the Texas Rangers. He was 7 at the time. His friend, Boots Cooper, who was 6, was sheriff, and they used to chase bad guys out in the big backyard. One day, Johnny's momma, Miz Faulk, asked these two fine law enforcement officers to go down to the hen house and chase a chicken snake out of there. They tethered their brooms outside the hen house, went in and hunted all through the nests on the bottom shelf, but they couldn't find that snake. They had to stand on tiptoe to see the nests on the second shelf. And, when they did - they saw that snake.

I have never been nose-to-nose with a chicken snake myself, but I always took Johnny's word for it that it will just scare the living daylights out of you. It scared the boys so bad, they both tried to exit the hen house at the same time, doing considerable damage to themselves and the hen house door in the process.

Miz Faulk, a-watching this from the porch, laughed and said, "Boys, boys, what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake will not hurt you."

Which is when Boots Cooper made the immortal observation, "Yes, ma'am, but there's some things'll scare you so bad you'll hurt yourself."

And that's what we do over and over in this country. We get scared so bad that we hurt ourselves. Scared of communism or the tide of illegal aliens or pornography or crime or some other menace, we think the only way to protect ourselves is to give up some of our freedom, sacrifice some of our constitutional rights. To hell with all those constitutional safeguards, the country is crawling with dangerous criminals, and we need to lock 'em up and cut off their right to appeal.

In addition to making us want to shred the Constitution, the fear of crime aggravates our sense of vulnerability and anxiety, which further undermines the civility of our times and makes our Legislature entertain nutty notions like legalizing concealed handguns.

"Live at Five" has a lot to answer for.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.

(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)