Walking On Broken Glass

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Awareness
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In New York City, there was a boy whose “father was a strict disciplinarian with a harsh temper, and [he] was often the focus of his father’s rage…” The boy grew up, and after many circumstances in which most of the outcome was failure, “He took an apartment on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, near Sixth Avenue, on a stretch of city block that was then heavy with homelessness and drug dealing. One of the doormen in the building, with whom [he] was close, was beaten badly by muggers… [and] in 1981, [he, himself] was mugged by three black youths as he entered the Canal Street station one afternoon” (147-148). Are you beginning to think this man is bound to hit rock bottom or explode with repressed rage? His name was Bernhard Goetz, and in 1984 he got on a train, in one of the most awful transit systems in the nation, and shot four young black men who were tormenting him. Many people, including psychologists and most of the general public would say it was bound to happen because of Goetz’s life history and a lot of psychological problems. Would you agree that “Crime, isn’t a single discrete thing, but a word used to describe an almost impossibly varied and complicated set of behaviors [?]…To say someone is a criminal is to say that he or she is evil or violent or dangerous or dishonest or unstable or any combination of any those things” (138). What is to be proven in this paper is that Goetz committed those crimes because of the environment that he lived in; the crime was inevitable because the environment he was surrounded by was closer to hell than any other in the nation. To prove this, one must look into the meaning of the Broken Windows theory and the Power of Context; which are both crucial parts to the epidemic theory of crime.

     No one hears of epidemics these days, when we think if it, what first comes to mind is something like the plague or a sickness, but no one thinks of the larger epidemics that have been occurring in society for twenty to thirty years at a time. According to history, the crime epidemic has fluctuated tremendously, and the time period we’re focusing on, 1980s-1990s, was a heat wave no one could forget; especially if you lived in New York. What is an epidemic? What triggers them, and what is the tipping point that allows it to devour society?

Gladwell, in explaining how the Broken Window theory applies to this epidemic theory of crime, says, “[The Broken Window theory] says that crime is contagious—just as a fashion trend is contagious—that it can start with a broken window and spread to an entire community. The Tipping Point in this epidemic, though, isn’t a particular kind of person…It’s something physical like graffiti. The impetus to engage in a certain kind of behavior is… from a feature of the environment” (141-142). In this particular instance, the New York transit systems’ conditions were so appalling, a key figure William Bratton, said “it was like going into the transit version of Dante’s Inferno” (137). Graffiti covered the trains from top to bottom, so much garbage it was hard to see the floor, and “fare-beating was so common it was costing the Transit Authority millions of lost revenue annually.” The epidemic of crime was at its peak because the environment people lived in gave them the assurance that it was acceptable to commit crime and trash the city because no one cared and no one was going to do anything about it. The message the streets of New York, as well as elsewhere throughout the nation, was giving off during the 1980s was the reason for such misconduct.

As criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling wanted to put the Broken Windows theory into action, they hired David Gunn as the new subway director for New York to oversee the rebuilding of the subway system. Gunn turned the transit system into something that was such a turn around to what it had been, it could of passed as ‘Pleasantville’s’ regular means for transportation. By not allowing for garbage and graffiti, subconsciously the citizens of New York reacted in a ‘treat others the way you would want to be treated’ sort of way. While this project lasted from 1984-1990, William Bratton, the new police chief, was the next ‘disciple of the Broken Windows theory’ to step in and finish off the second part of this new epidemic to clean up the city. Focusing on the fare-beaters in the transit system, Bratton said, “The idea was to signal, as publicly as possible, that the transit police were now serious about cracking down on the fare-beaters” (pg.145). Bratton’s creativity in outfitting an old city bus into a rolling station house was the brink of the tipping point that brought on such a stifling drop in crime by the mid- 1990s; “the idea was to send an unambiguous message to the vandals themselves” (143). By centering their plan on the small things that were the root cause of the major problems society allowed, was just what the doctor ordered to bring an end to this relentless crime fever.

If the source of crime is in the small things within what our environment provides, how do we determine what they are? To introduce the Power of Context one must know it as an environmental argument. “It says that behavior is a function of social context… [and] you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime” (150). The Power of Context suggests that the psychological make-up of a criminal has little to do with why he commits crime; however, it has everything to do with the message that is being sent by the state of his community. “The essence of the Power of Context is that the same thing is true for certain kinds of environments—that in ways that we don’t necessarily appreciate, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances” (152).

Of course one would question this radical idea because we have always been told that the reasons for why someone becomes a criminal lies in the individual himself. Common ideas of this concept include: 1) “Psychiatrists talk about criminals as people with stunted psychological development;” 2) individuals who grew up without good role models and have had bad relationships with their parents; and 3) the genetic composition of the person. There are more familiar concepts such as 4) “crime [being] a consequence of moral failure;” 5) having a distinguished personality type; 6) people who are not properly taught what is right from wrong; and lastly, 7) individuals “who grow up poor, fatherless, and buffeted by racism and don’t have the same commitment to social norms as those from healthy middle-class homes” (149-150). “What [psychologists] are suggesting is that this is a mistake, that when we think only in terms of inherent traits and forget the role of situations, we’re deceiving ourselves about the real causes of human behavior.” (158) The truth is yes, thousands of people have psychological, emotional, and psychical problems, and they will always be there; they don’t die off or magically recover when the crime wave goes up and down, but it’s the atmosphere that surrounds those people, and the tipping points that compel them to be criminals.

Many scholastic and psychologically driven tests have been done to prove whether these theories are in fact true, or just another opinion. Some have been outrageous, some have caused the most average people to become evil or insane, and some have tested the mere innocence of children. Although these concepts are extremely controversial, “we need to remember that small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics, even though that fact appears to violate some of our most deeply held assumptions about human nature.” (166) It seems that if the theories remain in practice within current community systems, we could see more and more change throughout our nation in the years to come.

Reference: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell


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