Former attorney general William Barr discusses the twentieth-century crime wave, the strategies that reversed it, and the risk of bad policy unleashing a wave of violence.
Brian Anderson: City Journal has expanded since I've joined. We've gone from being a small quarterly magazine that punches well above our weight to being a daily website that still punches above our weight, I'd like to think. We now publish a lot of articles, four a day, in fact, approaching the output of a newspaper editorial page. And of course every quarter we still turn in the print magazine on time, or very close to it.
That kind of expansion wouldn't be possible without our fantastic stable of writers and contributing editors, many of whom are here tonight, or our hardworking editorial team, Paul Beston, Steve Malanga, Teddy Kupfer—who we stole from National Review—Dan Kennelly, and Madeleine Miller. And it certainly wouldn't be possible without the enthusiastic institutional support and intellectual independence that our publisher, the Manhattan Institute, and its generous trustees afford us, under Reihan Salam and Ilana Golant, and under their predecessors, Larry Mone and Vanessa Mendoza, who are here tonight. We're really grateful to everyone who keeps City Journal flourishing, in other words.
Our first awardee tonight is William Barr. Mr. Barr is a native New Yorker and earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at Columbia after working for a time as an analyst at the CIA.
Earning a law degree from George Washington University, obtaining a prestigious federal clerkship, and practicing law, he began a long and distinguished career in public service, culminating in his appointments to United States attorney general, not once but twice, under presidents George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump. He's also spent time in the private sector, including with Verizon and Time Warner. Throughout his career, he's been a tireless champion of the U.S. Constitution and a devoted advocate of public order and religious liberty.
William Barr's first stint as attorney general came during the first Bush administration. He was the 77th person to hold the job and served from 1991 to 1993. Now, if you cast your mind back, that was a dark time in many ways. You'll recall that this was a time when crime was perhaps the most urgent problem facing the United States. The homicide rate had been climbing for decades. More than 2,000 people were killed annually in New York City alone. Disorder spanned the country, however, with seven violent crimes for every 1,000 Americans each year, and no end appeared in sight. Yet the response in most sociology and criminology departments and in the opinion of countless lawmakers and the elite press amounted to little more than a passive shrug and maybe a lecture about the need to solve the root causes of crime before any kind of progress could be made in dealing with the law-and-order problem.
But then came the great crime decline, a truly dramatic shift that Attorney General Barr helped bring about. In an influential 1992 Justice Department report, he had argued forcefully that the incarceration of serious offenders is an indispensable tool for delivering not only justice to the perpetrators of crimes, but safety to those who bear the brunt of urban violence. The then-unfashionable idea that the vigorous enforcement of the law could restore order and save lives eventually became a reality—one, unfortunately, under threat again today.
Now, you might also have heard about his more recent period in the Justice Department. In 2019 and in 2020, William Barr served in the Donald Trump administration as the 85th Attorney General, having taken office amid widespread press conjecture that the 44th president might somehow have been a Russian asset. He oversaw a massive special-counsel investigation, guarded the constitutional prerogatives of the executive branch, and ultimately resolved the Russiagate matter. In public remarks, he defended the social order at a time of family breakdown, drug addiction, and mental despair. At a time of disdain for traditional morality, he not only spoke out for religious liberty, but set up a task force in the department to protect it.
And during the horrendous rioting of 2020, he stood up for law enforcement and took on local and state officials who were encouraging urban anarchy. And from the beginning of his tenure until the end, amid intense pressure and controversy, he left little doubt that his principle loyalty was to the rule of law. If the City Journal Awards exists to honor intellectual independence and civic courage, I can't think of a more fitting first recipient. So please, ladies and gentlemen, join me in congratulating William Barr.
William Barr: Thank you very much for giving me this award, and also for giving it for moral courage and for the role I played in combating violent crime. But I just want to say a word upfront about moral courage, which is that in these days to serve in government when we have the politics of personal destruction, it's difficult. One of the most common questions I get is: Why in the hell did you go into that administration? And it's a question I ask myself as well. And it took a long time to wrestle with this issue.
Ultimately, the reason I went in is because I thought the country was headed toward a constitutional crisis. And I thought that there was an effort afoot to drive a duly elected president from office, or at least hobble his administration, and that he was not being given his due as president and his chance to carry out his administration, with the “Resistance” and Russiagate. And I came to the conclusion after pushing a lot of other bodies in front of me, trying to get people interested in making them attorney general, that, at the end of the day, I probably was in the best position to get confirmed and to help stabilize things.
I also felt that unlike the other candidates, I was at the end of my career. I was 69 years old and I wasn't looking for another job. Even if I was ostracized from society, I would still survive. So I thought I was in a place to deal with the current climate and go in and do what I thought was right. And that's what I said in my confirmation: I'm not going to be bullied by the president, by Congress, or by editorial boards. I'm going to do what I think is right, period, let the chips fall where they may, and I felt I could do that.
But the people who really have moral courage are the many people who went into that administration, regular Republicans and conservative Republicans and so forth, who were in their thirties, forties, and fifties and had their careers ahead of them and did all they could to have that administration succeed. And when they made a decision, they really had to worry about the impact on their lives and what effect it would have. Those are the people who really have moral courage. And I think they did yeoman’s service in trying to help Trump lead a successful administration and get reelected. And I am disappointed, bitterly disappointed, that he was not able to win that election. But I just wanted to say that, because for me, it wasn't as hard as for others.
The other thing is, I just never read the press. I'm serious. I didn't read it. I didn't watch TV except sometimes, when I was feeling a little down, I'd turn on Hannity or something like that—so I thought I was doing great. And I would judge things by the expression on my press secretary's face when she came in. If she was very hangdog, I'd say, oh, is something wrong? So I was surprised that I was actually recognized when I left. The first time I was AG, no one recognized me, except Washington lawyers on the street would nod when I passed. But now, anywhere I go, people come up to me. And at first I thought they'd be hostile, but actually 99 percent of the time it's very pleasant, very pleasant.
I tried to conceal my identity the first time I went to the airport. I was a little nervous because, for the first time, I didn't have the FBI guys around me, and so I went in disguise. I took off my trademark glasses and put on my mask and walked into Reagan airport, and people just started streaming toward me. And the first guy said, “Thank you for your service.” It was great. But it always perplexed me how they recognized me. Is there something about my physiology that tips them off?
But anyway, I've always felt that the primary duty of government, the raison d'etre of the state, is to protect the physical security of its citizens. It's the first duty of government. And therefore, both tours of Attorney General, this has been my main area of commitment, dealing with violent crime. And therefore I am particularly honored to receive this award from the Manhattan Institute, and to receive it along with Heather Mac Donald as co-honoree, because in the fight against violent crime, there has been no steadier and stauncher comrade-in-arms on the field than the Manhattan Institute. And I go back to even my first tour as Attorney General.
The Institute's careful empirical analysis, its clarity and creativity of thought, helped frame my own thinking on the issue of violent crime and shaped the approaches that have proven to be successful in the past. Over the past two decades, there's never been a bolder and more incisive thought leader on this subject than Heather Mac Donald. I told Heather, and this is the truth, that I clip her articles, I keep a file of her material. And even while I was attorney general, I would download the YouTube videos where she laid out her analysis and I'd watch them religiously. And she is just an amazing thought leader. And I was also gratified to see the work by Rafael Mangual, who honored me by asking me to write a blurb for his book, and it's just a wonderful book. So the Institute is carrying on its tradition really of being leaders in this area.
The problem of predatory violent crime is one of these issues that there's an obvious and effective solution to. There’s no mystery as to how to reduce violent crime: it's really a question of will. Before 1960, crime in the United States was relatively modest and stable. Starting in 1960, it quintupled over the next three decades—quintupled—and most of the increase occurred during the sixties and seventies. During the Reagan administration, we started to flatten that curve, but it was still going up. And while this was happening, while crime was soaring, incarceration rates were dropping. These were not unrelated phenomena.
By 1991, when I first became attorney general, the violent crime had reached its all-time high in the United States. All the empirical data, and I studied this question intensely during this period, all the data, all the real-world experience showed clearly what the problem was. The vast majority of predatory violence is committed by a tiny fraction of the population, people who are habitual offenders. This small cohort is probably in the range of 1 to 2 percent, and studies from other countries confirm this finding. It was always clear to me that the primary goal of the criminal justice system must be to identify, target, and incapacitate this group of offenders by making them serve substantial sentences that are dictated by the imperative of protecting the public.
I thought if we were going to ever get a grasp on violent crime—and, as I said, we were at record levels—if we were ever to do it in our lifetime, in our children's lifetime, we had to pursue this policy of incapacitation. So we embarked on a three-pronged strategy of growing state, federal, local task forces where we would go after the most violent offenders and prosecute them under federal law, firearms law, drug law, gang laws with the purpose of incapacitating them. And by the time I left office, we were charging 1,000 a month, and in a year-and-a-half we had 18,000 charged, taken off the streets.
The other thing we did was have a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach. We called it “weed-and-seed,” where we tried to focus law enforcement and coordinate them with social programs and get the local natural leadership of the neighborhood involved. This proved very successful for as long as we were able to carry it out.
And finally, we spearheaded, and this carried over from the Reagan administration, a national effort for the states to stop their revolving-door justice and to adopt tough systems more like the federal government. We had victims groups and all the law-enforcement community involved, and we started getting those reforms passed.
While our tenure was cut short by our defeat in 1992, subsequent events, I think, have proven that this was the correct approach. Starting in 1991 and 1992, the prison population in the United States doubled over the next two decades, and predictably, crime plummeted. And for 22 consecutive years, starting with 1991 and 1992, crime fell every single year, so that by 2014 it had been cut in half. And lo and behold, the prison population, as I said, had doubled. Now of course the Left, once crime rates got down to pseudo-tolerable levels, saying we have lower crime than ever before, and yet we have all these people in prison. And you say, well, how about saying because we have all these people in prison?
Rafael and I were talking earlier about this Swedish study in 2015. In Sweden, which is not as violent as the United States, they've determined that 1 percent of the population is responsible for 63 percent of the crime. So in the United States, as I say, I think it's between 1 and 2 percent, but let's take 1 percent, that's 3.5 million people. We have a ways to go before we have 3.5 million people in prison. And I only say that a little bit tongue-in-cheek. We have about half that number.
Anyway, 2014, this came to a screeching halt. In 2014, the Obama administration comes in, starts their war on police, influenced by all the soft-headed liberal policies, soft-on-crime policies. And crime started going up for the first time in 22 years. It was going up when Trump came into office and Jeff Sessions and I were able to get it back down. Going back to those policies, the incapacitation policy, we were able to reduce crime.
And then all hell broke loose in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter riots and with Covid. And now once again, we have increasing crime and there's no end in sight. Just as on the border, the administration is sitting there without any policy, without any direction, crime is going up and I don't see anything that's going to turn that around.
Now the progressive Left’s position on it is, as Brian mentioned, let's address the root causes of crime. This is tiresome and predictable: “Instead of locking people up, we should be building schools. Instead of more police, we should be hiring more teachers and social workers.” This is always presented as an alternative, that it's either tough law enforcement or addressing the root causes. But this is a false dichotomy because even if we were capable of figuring out social programs that could contribute to the reduction in crime, they're not a substitute for tough law enforcement, because tough law enforcement has to be the foundation of any program that is capable of reducing crime or alleviating some of the conditions that may lead to crime. It's a necessary prerequisite to social progress.
Over the main door of the Department of Justice building is a quote from Pliny: "From law and order, everything else arises." And law enforcement, safe neighborhoods, have to be the foundation on which we build everything else. So today the carnage is intolerable as it was in 1991 and 1992, and it's nice to hope that we can figure out how to make a more peaceful society, but citizens need to be protected today. The blood is flowing today. They deserve to be protected. Any approach, any social-program approach, even if you could figure out what to do, would take generations to have an impact. The question really is, how do you stop the slaughter here and now? Schools and social workers are not an adequate answer to that question.
More fundamentally, in the pervasive atmosphere of violence and fear, even the best designed social programs cannot take root. What good is it to build a brand new school in an inner city community if it's run by gangs, or try to attract new businesses into communities when the streets are shooting galleries? It was once a shibboleth that poverty causes crime, but I think the opposite is true: that crime causes poverty.
I just want to say at the end here something about police. We're facing a real crisis in the policing profession in the United States. The progressive jihad against police officers has already done massive damage to the profession. And this harm is going to persist for a long time, even after we succeed in reversing the wrongheaded progressive policies, in the law enforcement arena. Even in the best of times, there's no more challenging vocation than serving as a police officer. It requires commitment, courage, and the patience of Job. And those attracted to this profession are by and large civic-minded men and women with a strong desire to serve and protect their fellow citizens. The constant stress imposes huge wear and tear on the officers and their family life. And suicide rates, as we all know, are skyrocketing among police.
Police are being called upon to pick up the pieces where others have failed: homelessness, drug addiction, domestic violence, and mental illness—all the grim harvest of decades of progressive policies. But even before the recent abuse was hurled against the police, it was becoming harder to attract and retain officers. But the scapegoating of police that has been going on today is making it nearly impossible to recruit officers of high caliber that our communities need with the requisite intelligence and good judgment and self-control.
I'm being told today by sheriffs and chiefs of police departments and many jurisdictions that they are already dangerously understaffed and they cannot find new qualified recruits. Some of them have said men are no longer applying at all. It's mainly women applicants now to fill these slots. There's nothing wrong with that, but there should be some balance. We are risking getting caught in this destructive cycle because as the job becomes more unattractive and we're forced to bring in marginal candidates so we can build adequate forces, we can expect even more instances of poor judgment by police, which will in turn result in even more recrimination and attacks on the police.
And we have to pay attention to supporting the police and changing public attitudes toward the police just as much as we do in defeating the left's hare-brained policy agenda. It's all driven by this big lie, of course, that police are essentially racists who are gratuitously gunning down unarmed black men. As you all know, the data simply refutes that. In 95 percent of the interactions that lead to the shooting, killing, of a suspect, in 95 percent of the cases the suspect is armed with a dangerous weapon. And the other 5 percent, almost all of them involve suspects who are either running toward, charging at, or actually physically fighting the police officer, or refusing to show their hands and making motions that lead the officer to believe it's a gun. The number of cases a year that come up where there's no reasonable explanation, at least at first glance, are a handful.
We call on the police to go into these potentially dangerous situations where they have to make shoot/no-shoot decisions in less than a second. And we owe them the benefit of the doubt and the protection of qualified immunity. When I was growing up during the Vietnam War, people were spitting on our soldiers, and it took America a while to realize how contemptible that was. And now people thank soldiers for their service and we let them board the airlines first, and we should do all of that. But shouldn't we also honor those who serve as our police officers? Because it takes a special kind of courage to serve as a police officer.
Soldiers at least are deployed for a fixed period of time to the front, during which they face mortal danger, but police officers, their tour of duty is every day they're a police officer. They roll out of the precinct, and they're always exposed to sudden mortal danger. And for them, there's no final victory. Crime is always there, and they're always combating it. And if communities don't start honoring and supporting their police, they're just not going to have any police forces. It's that simple.
Let me close by thanking again the Manhattan Institute for the superb work it does on crime as well as a myriad other issues that confront us, and thank all of you who support the work of the Manhattan Institute. It's critical now more than ever. We need this work being done to bring our country back from the brink. Thank you.
Photo courtesy Manhattan Institute