Whatever else it may be, crime is mostly neither glamorous nor mysterious. A quotient of antisocial behavior has figured in every known society. In the Denmark of the human soul there is something eternally rotten. Some have peered into the dark heart of criminality and found, not inscrutable evil or anguished reaction to an oppressive system, but untrammeled self-interest. “All the lofty talk about the ‘root causes’ of crime,” writes social thinker Thomas Sowell, “fail[s] to notice the obvious: People commit crimes because they are people—because they are innately selfish and do not care how their behavior affects other people, unless they have been raised to behave otherwise or unless they fear the criminal justice system.”

This reads, plausibly, as a kind of rational actor theory: inasmuch as we all pursue private gain, only inner scruples about the suffering of others or a sensible fear of the consequences can reliably keep our selfish desires from running over, and inundating—as Emerson put it, though thinking of health, not moral sickness—“the neighborhoods and creeks of other men’s necessities.” The idea neatly explains both white-collar crime and street-level offenses. As a corollary to the banality of evil, the mundanity of crime. That something so basic could be so intractable seems perplexing. That it is elemental in us, however, is precisely what has made it a permanent feature of human life.

In his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions, Sowell identified this outlook as part of the “constrained vision” of society and human nature, in contrast with the “unconstrained vision,” whose adherents find it hard to fathom how anyone could commit a crime “without some special cause at work, if only blindness.” But perpetrators always have causes aplenty: profit, prestige, revenge, assertion of self. In the true-crime classic In Cold Blood, a quadruple murder in Kansas baffles local law enforcement: the heinous crime seems to have no motive. In fact, the motive is simple. The killers break in because they believe the man of the house has a safe holding $10,000 or more; finding none, they murder him and his family in anger, and to leave no witnesses.

The constrained vision fits many of the facts. “Research shows that [organized retail crime] groups commit retail crimes for their financial benefit, and specifically target items that are concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable and disposable, also known by the acronym CRAVED,” as the National Retail Foundation puts it. In 2022, a mere 327 people accounted for nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in New York; apprehended and sprung from custody ad nauseam, like Batman villains, in total they were arrested and rearrested more than 6,000 times. And what of “senseless” shootings? Dominick Davis, in a brief statement before the court, called his own murder of Hwangbum Yang a senseless act. Yet his motive was clear. It is because crime, from a certain angle, makes so much sense that societies have traditionally gone to such great lengths to curtail it.

Crime tends to be thought of, by Right and Left alike, as qualitatively different from other human actions, not only in the penalties that attach to it but also in being uniquely injurious. Criminal acts are more accurately seen to be of a piece with other antisocial behavior, existing on a spectrum of disorder. Laws—though some are now rarely enforced—reflect this. At some point idly hanging out shades into loitering, boorishness amounts to a public nuisance, bad parenting degenerates into reckless endangerment. Drinking is legal; being drunk and disorderly is not.

What does it do to us, living with chronic levels of high crime? Even in the worst neighborhoods, most residents are not criminals, yet in going about their lives they must breathe, like secondhand smoke, the noxious air of crime. An August 2021 meta-analysis of 63 studies pertaining to neighborhood crime and mental health, published in Social Science & Medicine, found crime “significantly linked to depression and psychological distress” among local residents. Importantly, it isn’t required that someone actually witness or fall prey to crime for its ubiquitous presence to affect them; according to researchers, neighborhood crime can be thought of as “the subjective perception of [residents] indicating danger or safety in their area.”

The anthropologist Sami Hermez has developed a concept he calls the “anticipation of violence.” Born out of research conducted in Lebanon in 2007, during months of intermittent bombings, his work describes how the ever-present threat of violence permeates local people’s awareness, alters social relations, and creates a way of life in which “violence is presented and implicated in the ordinary rather than the two being mutually exclusive.” Hermez is interested in war-ridden regions of the globe, where the normal warps under the weight of abnormal force. His concept holds true, however, for cities plagued by violent crime. Replace “war” with “crime” in his assertions and you get statements like: “everywhere the talk of crime seeps into daily conversations and decisions.”

In a passage of her 1980 novel The Transit of Venus depicting New York in the anarchic 1970s, Shirley Hazzard masterfully evokes the anticipation of violence to which millions of Manhattanites were then subjected. Paul Ivory, a successful British playwright who has married into the aristocracy, gets on the subway at 77th Street:

In the train the hot air was substantial, the stench tangible. Streaked and scrawled, the walls gave way to rubber flooring that had been intermittently ravaged. Shaped seats of a defaced plastic, hard as iron, confronted one another in long penitential rows. Underfoot, cigarette butts, smeared wrappings, the sports page crumpled on the rictus of a wealthy athlete. A beer can rolled from side to rocking side, the train careening, shrieking, racketing.

The general filth, the enclosed atmosphere are threatening. Though outwardly impassive, every straphanger is aware of the risks:

Everyone is thinking, a bit of danger. One of these sullen, standing men might present his own imperatives, Give me the bag, the wallet, the watch. . . . In this place, as in any hell, none has the advantage: briefcases give neither pathos nor immunity; a jewelled ornament is a target.

. . . When the train started up, there was no murmur of surprise or relief. These might have been the founders of a new race that disdained expression and was indifferent to cruelty or compassion, or their own dis-ease. If, here among them, Paul fell dead on the dirty floor, he would be no more than an obstacle to the exit.

New Yorkers often feel crime more keenly than other Americans because many of us walk the streets and ride public transit, rather than traveling from home to office in two-ton, 200-horsepower bubbles, insulated from the reality outside. Murders in commuter cities may pass largely unnoticed by the citizenry, so long as the killings are confined to what academics call “micro-geographic units”—certain city blocks, sections of certain streets—possessing “criminogenic characteristics.” The baddest parts of bad neighborhoods. Domestic violence, gang beefs, internecine squabbles are hyperlocal affairs. Turf wars may be fought over tiny patches of sod.

Photo: gorodenkoff/iStock

One night, years ago, my then-girlfriend and I had a fight, and she went out to blow off steam. Long past midnight, I got a text telling me she had been attacked. What happened was this: she had drunk gin martinis until last call in a midtown bar, had passed the time pleasantly enough, chatting with an elderly Scot, but upon leaving was trailed to the subway by a man in a suit, who had been drunkenly leering at her. Into the night of Bill de Blasio’s New York she descended—and got caught in the stairwell, shoved face-first into the wall. Pinning her against the sullied tile with his full weight, the man poured filth into her ear. When he spun her around to face him, she was able at last to drive her knee into his groin, her elbow into his face. Whereupon in a rage he pitched her down the stairs and fled.

Her phone was dead, she had no immediate way to call for help, and when I found her, in the underground police station at 161st Street to which she had dragged herself, she was dazed, concussed, in tears. In one hand was her phone (attached by its white umbilicus to an electrical socket) and in the other an ice pack, doing what it could to soothe the torn ligaments in her fractured left ankle. Left to me was the task—and my bitterness lay in knowing it was all I could do, and that it came too late—of picking her up and carrying her in my arms through the grimy, deserted station and up the stairs like a child, or a new bride; up and out of what now seemed a hell I was belatedly ransoming her from. The damage was done—her uncomplicated love of the city stolen, her sense of security left behind. Furious with myself, angry at the world, I put her in a cab, that wounded girl, and took her home.

An incident like that you get past without getting over—or get over without forgetting. Plenty of charlatans in recent years have spun tales of grievance from less. Fear stalked my girlfriend for months afterward, the awful event returning whenever she found herself alone in the canyoned streets after sundown. Memories of the trauma would recur for years.

Crime turns law-abiding people into more than victims or potential victims. It turns them into suckers. Who would gladly pay for things that everyone else enjoys for free? In New York, nearly one-third of bus riders were skipping out on the fare as of May 2022, up from 29.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021, while 12.5 percent of people on the subway rode without paying—one in eight leaping nimbly past or stepping awkwardly over or crawling shamelessly under turnstiles, strolling through open emergency exits—up from 9.8 percent at the end of 2021. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was losing some $200 million a year to farebeating even before the Covid-19 pandemic and was, at time of writing, on track to run up an estimated $600 million budget deficit for fiscal 2023. Inevitably, given its budget shortfall, the MTA in August hiked fares once again—fares that will be paid, it hardly needs saying, only by those who pay fares. “It’s not just a matter of money, although it is a huge, huge financial issue,” MTA chief Janno Leiber said. “Fare evasion tears at the social fabric.”

Across America, that cloth looks increasingly threadbare. At a Lululemon store in Atlanta that has been repeatedly robbed—pillaged, more like; the looting culture that emerged in 2020 has acquired, in cities around the country, a disturbingly permanent aspect—two employees recently trailed to the parking lot a trio of thieves carrying off scads of merchandise. The workers noted their license plate number and called the cops, who caught the suspects. For their good deed, Lululemon fired the two employees. The company has a zero-tolerance policy—not for theft but for intervening in theft. “It’s only merchandise,” Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald told CNBC.

But the problem is getting worse: so-called “shrinkage”—losses due to shoplifting, employee theft, damage to products, and fraud—cost U.S. retailers $94.5 billion in 2021, according to the 2022 National Retail Security Survey, nearly $4 billion more than in 2020. The losses get passed onto consumers, of course. In effect, paying customers are subsidizing brazen criminals.

Rather than swallow inflated prices, young shoppers with a yen for designer clothes and bags and shoes have turned to inexpensive “dupes”—what once were called knock-offs. Videos tagged #dupe have collectively racked up billions of views on TikTok, while Google searches for “dupe” hit a record in 2023. Dupe buyers are proud of their savvy; hence the new coinage, giving fraud a makeover. Consumers buy dupes, that is, so as not to be dupes. Such knock-offs are themselves illegal: LVMH alone spends millions of dollars a year fighting counterfeiters, though for all it has stemmed the flood, the luxury conglomerate may as well be stacking sandbags before a tsunami. A 2022 survey by the European Union Intellectual Property Office found that 37 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds admitted to buying at least one dupe—more than double the number who copped to buying fakes in 2019. Here, too, what Leiber said of farebeating applies: “When people start breaking the rules, it very quickly becomes: Why should I follow the rules?”

Consider: during the eviction moratorium, my neighbors, a reclusive Hispanic family, paid no rent, freeloading for a full year—until one day they were gone, having packed up and fled like thieves in the night. The damage they left behind included (as I saw for myself) a gaping hole in the kitchen floor, where it seems a tetchy washer-dryer had overflowed. The hapless owners, a black woman and her son, had no way to hold the family accountable. For weeks afterward, a racket of belt sanders, electric drills, and power saws shattered my domestic peace. This was to be replaced, once renovations were done, with the blare of cranked-to-11 Latin music from the belligerent new occupants, whom the owners (in the red $10,000 for repairs, plus a year’s worth of withheld rent) had hurried to install. Bad vibes rush in to fill the civic vacuum.

Law-abiding people know the price of everything, because, reluctantly or not, they still pay it: $2.90 for a subway ride, $118 for a pair of leggings, yea-much for rent or property taxes—more every year, everything inflated or shrinkflated or debased in quality. What comes dear is valued, while in the thief’s eyes even a pearl of great price on five-finger discount has little worth. For taking the life of Hwangbum Yang, $400 was deemed sufficient profit.

There is an environment—we feel it intuitively—that breeds crime, an element in which crime ineluctably thrives. The “bad” neighborhood, the street where it’s unsafe to walk at night, the urban dystopia where the victims who are ostensibly “asking for it” receive their unwelcome answers. Those forced to endure it try to pretend it doesn’t exist. The demoralizing effect of streets filled with trash and vagrants, of sidewalks land-mined with feces (animal or human), of storefronts marred by graffiti—these, the city-dweller tries to ignore. In traversing the city, he selectively edits his visual field. Like the straphangers in Hazzard’s novel, he affects indifference. A security guard on Market Street in San Francisco recently told New York, “What it really feels like living in San Francisco is that you’re lying to yourself. Oh, I live in San Francisco. It’s so nice. When you walk by the junkies you’re like, They don’t exist. They don’t exist. You’re lying to yourself.” Humankind cannot bear too much urban reality.

People are fleeing: from April 2020 to July 2022, California’s population dropped by more than 500,000, according to the Census Bureau. Excluding births and new immigrant arrivals, counting only out-of-staters moving in and residents leaving—“either by U-Haul or by hearse,” as CalMatters puts it—the state lost more than 870,000 people. New York, too, is suffering on a huge scale the implicit censure of outmigration, and leads the country in population loss.

For those who stay, wretchedness rises at times to the level of the unignorable. I recall walking down Broadway one morning in 2021, heading to the No. 1 train at 145th Street. The steel rollaway doors of many shops, still shuttered at 7 AM, bore colorful murals as part of a local project honoring John James Audubon, an old-time resident of the area—each mural depicting one or more of the 435 avian species described in the great ornithologist’s Birds of America. The murals—more than 100 of them—are a point of local pride, from small-scale works on shopfronts (such as a wraparound scene of barn swallows on a pharmacy at 149th and Broadway by Harlem native Marthalicia Matarrita, who said, “This project helps bring together people and stories such as mine”) to huge designs like the majestic, towering depiction of a fish crow that looms over a Mobil station not far from Aubudon’s grave. On that morning, however, I was appalled to find mural after mural defaced; someone had scribbled on them in the night with red spray paint. Making no effort to substitute new designs, the vandal had sought only to obliterate beauty.

There is a link, definite but hard to define, between moral ugliness and the physical ugliness it feeds on and perpetuates. There is a disquiet that comes from realizing you live in the same city and neighborhood as people interested only in destruction. In late May 2020, I watched online as Minneapolis rioters reduced a 189-unit affordable-housing complex to smoldering ashes, burning the unfinished building down to its concrete foundation. Afterward, I texted a dramatic picture of the fire to a friend, a committed progressive who works as a federal prosecutor, to ask what he thought. “That is an incredible photo,” he remarked. “I’m not going to comment on the propriety [of] rioting tho.” I challenged him: What propriety would that be? The propriety of burning homes and police stations to the ground? “We’ve already established,” he said, “I have a soft heart.” As if this admission excused everything, the arsonists, the wanton destruction, himself. As if any condemnation of others would leave him exposed.

Is it possible that so-called “Karens”—white women, often middle-aged, who cry foul when they bump up against the sharp corners of life—are deprecated, in part, because they call attention to unpleasant social problems, unsightly aspects of reality that others are doing their best to ignore? Of so much vitriol aimed their way, the subtext seems to be: “The rest of us are putting up with this; why can’t you?” Some just want to stand by while the world burns, withholding judgment.

In popular culture, the face of criminality has changed. Twenty years ago, FX’s The Shield, a Shakespearean tragedy disguised as a cop show—in many ways superior to another crime drama that debuted the same year, HBO’s The Wire—was unsparing in its depiction of black and Latino gangbangers as self-interested lowlifes, warring with one another while preying mostly on their racial and ethnic cohorts. The Shield gave poverty and prejudice and police brutality their due, but not to the extent of denying human agency; the harsh reality of street crime was never subordinated to a comforting ideology.

In Hollywood productions now, beholden to “sensitivity readers,” this seems no longer the case. From Showtime’s Your Honor to Netflix’s The Lincoln Lawyer to FX’s Justified: City Primeval, from The Batman to Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out and its glossy sequel, Glass Onion, ethical judges, competent attorneys, honorable politicians, and other sympathetic characters tend to be nonwhite, usually black, while the villains are overwhelmingly white and male: brutal white gangsters, mendacious white billionaires, corrupt white cops. It is not enough, in the Justified sequel, to make the central villain a white hick (the “Oklahoma Wildman”); the secondary threat must take the form of the all-white Albanian mob, this in Detroit, a city more than three-fourths black and only 10 percent white. It is not enough, in The Lincoln Lawyer, to make the white-male tech bro a murderous sociopath; he must be unmasked as a preening fraud, who rose to fame by stealing credit for his wife’s code—his murdered wife being the true genius of the pair. (How gratified progressives would be if this proved true of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, or if female faux visionaries like Elizabeth Holmes and Charlie Javice had proven to be their equals.) In like manner, the deranged Riddler, in The Batman, must of course be stopped by Gotham’s vigilante, but in the end, his serial murders have done the city a service, removing crooked white men from positions of power and clearing the way for an upright new mayor—a black woman, naturally—to lead Gotham into a brighter tomorrow.

It may be too much to expect that America’s dream machine would not reflect the fond imaginings of its operators; would not seek to fill with persuasive images the gulf between things as they are and things as they want them to be. Must we then, in matters as serious as public safety, endorse magical thinking?

Offscreen, the face of murder, of violent assault, of robbery remains much as it was 20 years ago, only more so. The FBI estimates that African Americans, who make up only 13 percent of the population, accounted for 59 percent of all known homicide offenders in 2022. In Minneapolis, fewer than one in five residents is black, yet blacks in 2022 accounted for 84 percent of known violent-crime and homicide suspects—and a similarly outsize share of victims. In Albuquerque, a very different city, where white and black Americans commit about equal numbers of homicides, the enormous disparity is clear when you look at population data. White people (including Hispanic whites) make up more than six in ten of the city’s populace, while black residents—punching way above their weight, murder-wise—are a mere 3.2 percent.

In other words, it is black Americans mostly inducing and black Americans mostly dying these deplorably violent, and ostensibly preventable, deaths. The trend toward representing black people onscreen in almost exclusively positive roles, or as victims of racial injustice—or both—has accelerated in concert with a huge spike in black homicides and vehicular crashes. Even as Juneteenth gatherings in Milwaukee and St. Louis, in Baltimore and Charlotte and suburban Chicago became this year the sites of mass shootings, leaving at least 12 dead and more than 100 injured, in popular entertainment it was as if a voice raised in denial grew ever louder, repeating its message with desperate insistence.

One sign of the demographic imbalance, and a clear consequence of it, is that a number of newsrooms, including those of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Orlando Sentinel, have stopped publishing mugshot databases, fearing that the parade of minority faces could inflame prejudice—or, as the editor of the Tampa Bay Times put it, “further negative stereotypes.” Some outlets, such as WCPO in Cincinnati, no longer broadcast mugshots at all, except in special cases—say, if the suspect remains at large—arguing that this is the “ethical and responsible” thing to do.

Photo: South_agency/iStock

In Lars von Trier’s film The Element of Crime, an elderly criminologist suffers an epiphany: “We always looked for the element of crime in society. But why not look in the very nature of man?” He is onto something here beyond an ideological vision, constrained or unconstrained. Crime, which presupposes the existence of laws and norms, is innately human. When do rigid concepts of crime and punishment, guilt and expiation enter the picture? The oldest civilizations we know had a firm grasp of them. Already in the ancient world the whip is an overloaded symbol, expressing both punishment and mastery; in Egypt, where the lash, lightning-like in the speed and severity of its blows, was linked with Min, god of the wind, the pharaohs used the whip as an emblem of godlike power. A sense of “diffuse guilt” permeates the Iliad, equivalent, for Homer and the Attic tragedians, to the Christian doctrine of original sin. “Fed on the same reality, charged with the same weight of experience, it contains the same appraisal of existence,” noted the philosopher Rachel Bespaloff. “It too acknowledges a fall, but a fall that has no date and has been preceded by no state of innocence and will be followed by no redemption.” Life itself is the fall and the fall is without end.

Perennial human nature is not especially patient of solution. What solutions we have found over the millennia are neither painless nor automatically inherited. It may be that to speak of solutions at all is naive; what we have instead is an endless, or endlessly reiterated, series of trade-offs by which we negotiate a flawed cosmos. “To live as one likes is plebeian,” said Goethe; “the noble man aspires to order and law.” Thus moral training of some kind is a prerequisite for well-formed adults. Ethical men and women have existed throughout history, but perhaps no ethical toddlers. No one need teach infants to wail when wet, to scream bloody murder when hungry or in pain—though pups and cubs and calves make do with a low whine, a decorous whimper. The insistence on self which is the beginning of crime, predominating over everyone else and all other concerns, is a newborn's basic drive. The infant self is a giant, wide as the universe, and contracts only gradually over the first several years of life to admit the existence and moral claims of other people. As Sowell puts it, “Every child born into this world today is as uncivilized as the cave man. If nobody gets around to civilizing him, that is the way he will grow up.”

The Iliad begins, in Greek, with the word for “wrath,” the aggrieved, all-consuming wrath of Achilles. It ends with a compound word meaning “horsetamer,” applied to the epic’s most human and, finally, most vulnerable hero: “Such was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses”—making this most bellicose of epics, as Guy Davenport observed, a poem about quelling the beast in man, which is the work of civilization. With each generation the lesson must be relearned.

And we are relearning, slowly. Accountability is returning. In San Francisco, voters kicked out of office in a special recall election in June 2022 their district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who had adamantly refused to prosecute any quality-of-life crimes—prostitution, public urination and defecation, sidewalk camping—and had presided over the city’s deterioration into a smash-and-grab paradise. (“Criminals,” Bernard Goldberg opined in The Hill, “make calculations about risks and rewards. And in San Francisco they concluded that crime pays.”) Just two and a half years into his four-year term, Boudin went down crying about a right-wing plot against him—this in a city where only 7 percent of voters are registered Republicans. Having ignored the three-strikes law, eliminated cash bail, and targeted cops for prosecution, Boudin was in the vanguard of a national trend toward permissive DAs, which, he said, “understands we can never incarcerate our way out of poverty.” His constituents might have been content, however, with incarcerating their way out of crime, such as the more than 65 kilograms of fentanyl—enough potentially to kill millions of people—taken off San Francisco’s streets by the SFPD and California Highway Patrol in the first six months of 2023.

In Seattle, the father of one of the boys shot and killed by the citizen “police” of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone—none of whom has been charged—is suing the city, King County, the State of Washington, former mayor Jenny Durkan, and Councilmember Kshama Sawant for their alleged culpability in his son’s wrongful death. This is only the latest fallout from a towering mushroom cloud of civic failure. Three years on, the city—which supplied CHAZ organizers with barriers, port-a-potties, dumpsters, and other equipment to create the enclave—has had to settle millions of dollars in claims, including $3.6 million to business owners inside the occupied zone, $200,000 to the Seattle Times, and a payout to the father of Lorenzo Anderson, whose 19-year-old son was the first to be shot to death in CHAZ. In January 2023, a federal judge imposed sanctions on the city after learning that top officials—Durkan, former Police Chief Carmen Best, Fire Chief Harold Scoggins—had willfully deleted from their work phones tens of thousands of text messages exchanged during the CHAZ occupation, “in complete disregard of their legal obligation to preserve relevant evidence.”

In New York, the NYPD has beefed up its presence on the streets and underground, and bored-looking private security personnel now guard the exit doors at certain subway stations, just as uniformed National Guard soldiers guard the entrances of migrant hotels. To prevent riders from falling onto the tracks—or being pushed to their deaths in front of oncoming trains, as 40-year-old Michelle Go was pushed in January 2022 at the Times Square station by a homeless man—the MTA is close to beginning construction of platform barriers with built-in gates at three stations (Times Square included): a $100 million effort, announced the month after Go’s death, to bring at least a small part of the New York transit system up to the standards of Tokyo and Paris, Barcelona and Bangkok.

And yet, in San Francisco the police are struggling, as SFPD Chief Bill Scott puts it, to “get back to just the basics of arresting people.” Opposed in this basic function by officials such as Supervisor Dean Preston (“punitive policies have not been shown to be effective”), amid the daily crime onslaught, the cops are receiving something like a vote of no-confidence from retailers, hoteliers, and developers. Amid “ongoing concerns over safety and security,” Westfield, Nordstrom, AT&T, and Park Hotels & Resorts are shuttering flagship stores and fleeing the city’s once-thriving downtown.

And yet, in Seattle, one morning last June, a 34-year-old restaurant owner, Eina Kwon, eight months pregnant, was shot dead in her car by a convicted felon with a stolen gun, who, police say, ran up to the car while it was at a stoplight. Kwon’s husband, sitting beside her, was wounded. Though they were rushed to Harborview Medical Center, though the mother hung on long enough for an emergency C-section to be performed, though the baby girl was delivered alive, both mother and infant soon died.

And yet, in New York, the headlines mount: a 29-year-old woman violently robbed who narrowly escaped being raped; a 35-year-old woman partially paralyzed because a vagrant shoved her into a speeding train; a 36-year-old man stabbed to death (though the killer claimed self-defense)—all this in the subway system, all in just a few weeks last summer, each crime “crystallizing the endemic problem of safety underground,” as the New York Times wrote of the paralyzed woman’s story.

People who subscribe to the unconstrained vision argue that crime is, if not exactly unnatural, at least rare when unprovoked. In truth, however, natural incentives to commit crimes abound. In the absence of counter-incentives, they are widely acted upon. Crime remains, indeed, eternally tempting, taking many forms; and few crimes are truly victimless. In what kind of society do we want to live? One where order matters? Or one where, cloaked in faddish language, wearing the righteous mask of reform, lawlessness reigns?

In the absence of official resolve, crime compounds on crime. Four times Francisco Oropesa, a Mexican man in his late thirties, illegally crossed the southern border into the U.S., and four times he was deported (every crossing after his first deportation was a felony, though none was prosecuted). It was during his fifth or even sixth illegal stay in America, in a community about 45 miles north of Houston, that he, incensed at being asked to stop firing his gun in his yard, allegedly went over to his neighbors’ house and murdered in retaliatory fashion five people, including a young boy. The White House, in its statement on the massacre, neglected to mention Oropesa’s immigration status, preferring to describe the crime merely as “yet another shocking, horrific act of gun violence.”

Again, I recall the killing of Hwangbum Yang. His death inspired no “Say His Name” marches; the shocked conscience of sleepy Riverdale recoiled from effusive demonstrations. Then, too, apart from the “Apple picking” angle, the crime fit no useful political or media narrative, only the long-running, unspoken narrative in which the best of us get preyed on by the worst, in which innocence and hard work come to grief in the face of violence and degenerate greed. There were no marches or protest signs, but on the sidewalk where Yang died, there were carnations left by neighbors who had known him, who felt and mourned his family’s loss. Every day for four weeks straight, the murdered man’s mother prayed at the scene of the crime, while his sister, Sunah, avoided that garlanded sidewalk as she avoided the one-way street where the awful crime had occurred. To visit that modest shrine was to see it all happen again in her mind’s eye: the telltale white earbuds too-visible in the midnight dark, the gunshot, the terrible wound, her brother’s lifeless body lying on the pavement. The killer prodding him with the toe of his shoe to check that he was dead. “Instead,” Sunah told a reporter months later, “I try to imagine that my brother is traveling around the world, and I’ll see him again soon.” Comforting fictions are all we have left when reality is ruled inadmissible, or when it is made too hideous to bear.

Read Part One

Top Photo: petekarici/iStock


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