Twenty-three prior arrests, including menacing someone with a machete five years ago, and this madman is still walking the streets? Seeing a passerby’s video of Sook Yeong Im, a pretty young Korean tourist, lying on the 40th Street sidewalk after crazy career criminal Frederick Young, 43, had twice slashed open her arm with his viciously honed weapon—exposing muscle fiber and sending blood spurting everywhere—brought back in an instant the knot of fear New Yorkers carried in their stomachs in the pre-Rudy Giuliani era, when out-of-control crime was killing not just one person every four hours, 365 days a year, but also was killing Gotham itself. That the assault occurred in Bryant Park at 11:30 on a sun-drenched early-summer morning, as the victim was looking for a seat after her yoga class, seemed to unravel just about every gain that the tireless efforts of thousands over 20 years had achieved to make New York once more the capital of the world. Suddenly, it seems we’re back to Son of Sam or the Wild Man of West 96th Street.
Start with Bryant Park. Who that had not seen it a quarter-century ago would believe that this lush, cosmopolitan oasis behind Carrère and Hastings’ gleaming white marble New York Public Library, with throngs of tourists and businesspeople lunching at its smart cafés or on its freshly painted Parisian chairs, was once a no-go zone, with drug sellers openly plying their trade in broad daylight on the packed dust that had once been a lawn, and with muggers lurking in the bushes, ready to prey on any tourist too uninformed to keep out? Along with MTA, Transit Authority, and Transit Police heads Robert Kiley, David Gunn, and William Bratton’s clean-up of the subways, the city’s lifeblood, by washing off the omnipresent graffiti and chasing out the bums and pickpockets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dan Biederman’s Bryant Park Corporation’s astonishing transformation of despoiled park into a gleaming commons at the very center of the capital of the Twentieth Century during the same period were the two pre-Giuliani signs that what human failing had spoiled, human effort could redeem. These were the first luminous demonstrations that New York did not have to die.
Behind both accomplishments was a theory, propounded by Manhattan Institute scholar George Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson. Dubbed Broken Windows, the theory held that, when city authorities allow public spaces to turn into theaters of disorder, dysfunction, and dirt—where dope sellers, graffiti vandals, and prostitutes of every description go about their business without interference, while bums and madmen panhandle aggressively, pee on the street, blast radios, jump turnstiles in the subway, and smear filth and litter everywhere—then honest citizens will stay away out of fear and disgust, and the evil-intentioned, seeing that nobody cares to protect public order, will feel emboldened to commit serious crimes, not just these so-called “victimless” crimes, whose real victim was the city itself. But clear out the rubbish, clean up the graffiti, spruce up the space, arrest the petty criminals, and get the madmen into medical care, and urban vitality will return. Meanwhile, serious crime will go down, because criminals will know that the authorities are watching them, that cops can stop and question them and search them for weapons on probable cause, and that lawbreaking will send them to jail. In Bryant Park and in the subways, the theory had its first real-world test. And Eureka! a modern miracle.
But what resistance the experiments had to overcome! The homeless, the mainstream media falsely told us for over a decade (there was then no Internet or Fox News to rebut them), were willing workers victimized by a heartless capitalist economy that sent their jobs overseas or replaced them with machines, forcing them out of the decent working- or lower-middle-class lives they had thought were secure. Or, if they were insane, why should they be forcibly medicated rather than left to follow their alternate lifestyle, as the cant of the time had it—harmlessly “idling,” in the asinine description of Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas—which in practice meant freezing to death on the streets, terrorized by the demonic voices in their heads, and driven with almost predictable regularity to stab someone in the park or subway, or push her in front of an onrushing train. And as for the bums and criminals, so many of them African-Americans: were they not forced to do what they did by 300 years of oppression, and, if society punished them for it, was it not “blaming the victim?”
Still, so obviously was the city dying under such enlightened tolerance that Gotham’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters elected tough ex-U.S. attorney Giuliani as mayor in 1993 to restore law and order—which he did with amazing success once he took over City Hall in 1994. He called Bratton back from Boston, where he had gone to be police chief in 1992, to institute Broken Windows policing in New York. Every kind of crime fell with amazing rapidity, and the city snapped back to life, once residents and tourists stopped being afraid to go out to restaurants and theaters, or just to walk the interesting and now safe streets, window shopping, people watching, enjoying the drama of urban life. Forced-treatment laws for the crazy helped many, but sadly many more ended up untreated in jail, which became the state’s de facto mental-health-care system. But in any event, they were no longer pushing people under subways or stabbing them with screwdrivers. And, short of jail, stop-and-frisk policies allowed police to take away any weapons they might be carrying, so they constituted less of a public threat.
Now Mayor Bill de Blasio has done away with much of that. Stop-and-frisks are down 95 percent from their 2011 high. Broken Windows policing is again under attack from enlightened opinion in the academy and mainstream media, which also has once again embraced what is now most emphatically the myth of omnipresent American racism. De Blasio himself leads the chorus in slurring the NYPD as racist oppressors, warning his biracial son not to give them any excuse to brutalize him. And cops are afraid to do their jobs, since they have no support from City Hall. So no wonder shootings are up for two years in a row—a first since the pre-Giuliani era—with four more just this afternoon. No wonder Gotham has had 19.5 percent more murders in the first five months of this year than in the corresponding period last year. And after vilification from City Hall and the mainstream media for recent Broken Windows arrests, and being ordered to cut way back on stop-and-frisks, no wonder cops didn’t want to put their careers on the line to mess with Frederick Young—an obviously crazy black man, muttering to himself and carrying something suspicious in a garbage bag. And you can expect more senseless, needless crimes like what happened to Sook Yeong Im, along with ever-growing fear in the streets, until de Blasio is out of City Hall.