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The Makings of the American Gulag

Here Comes Another "Crime Wave"

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Ominously timed for Campaign 2008 we’ve got a hike in certain stats for violent crime. So we can look forward to Steve Squarejaw-type commitments to being tough on crime, particularly from Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and — it’s surely safe to assume — Hillary Clinton. The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based law enforcement think tank whose board consists of seven police chiefs, including William Bratton of the LAPD and John Timoney of Miami, has just put out a report stridently titled "Violent Crime in America: 24 Months of Alarming Trends". This follows the alarums of the Forum’s October 2006 bulletin, which featured Bratton predicting "a gathering storm" of violent crimes.

Of the fifty-six police departments voluntarily sending 2006 figures to the Forum-New York City was not among them-forty reported increases in homicide and robbery. The Forum says that between 2004 and 2006 homicide increased 10.2 percent, robbery 12.3 percent, aggravated assault 3.1 percent, aggravated assault with a firearm up 10 percent.

Of course crime stats are only exceeded in flim-flammery by economic forecasts. Astrology is a far more reliable analytic tool, as Ron and Nancy Reagan learned under the guidance of Mistress Quigley. Entrail-reading is even better There should be a unit of haruspices, proficient in the Etruscan art, in every government department*

The Forum’s fearful trumpetings would diminish sharply if its statistics addressed crime rates rather than merely numbers of crimes. The population of the United States is rising by about 1 percent per year. As the columnist John Lott pointed out, if the police chiefs had measured the violent crime rate, "it would have been hard to argue that violent crime is increasing because while the rate did go up slightly in 2005, it had fallen every single previous year since 1991. How can they claim that violent crime is out of control when it had fallen for thirteen straight years before rising by 1.3 percent for just one year?"

There are wide divergences in the performance of the cities reporting to the forum. Murderers in Charleston worked away diligently and managed to hike their total from 11 victims in 2005 to 23 in 2006, a headline-making rise of 109 percent. By contrast the murderers of Atlanta could only manage 107 in 2006, up from a disappointing 89 in 2005, but down from 112 in 2004. In Chicago aggravated assaults fell two straight years, from 18,820 in 2004 to 17,438 in 2006, a drop of 7.3 percent.

Debatable in many of its aspects, such rise in crimes as there has been started in 2004, ending a long decline during the nineties that lasted through the turn of the millennium. Between 1992 and 2001 the FBI’s core crime stats went down 17.9 percent. This was largely achieved by the expedient of locking up or putting on parole or probation about 3 percent of the population. At the end of 2005, 7 million people-one in every thirty-two American adults-were behind bars or on probation or parole. The United States had 5 percent of the world’s people and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Elliott Currie, who teaches criminology at UC Irvine and wrote the excellent Crime and Punishment in America tells my Nation colleague Wes Enzinna that in his opinion the right-wing exaggerates how much crime declined since the early 1990s as a result of "law and order" efforts. One major factor was the crack and gun boom, a self-limiting phenomenon that could only last so long, and cause so much crime, before it largely destroyed those involved.

Currie also stresses that nothing was done to abate crime on a long-term, constructive basis. People were thrown into prison, while the root causes-ravaged communities, abandoned and demonized youth-were exacerbated. Any recent crime rise can be largely explained as part of a cycle. People are now getting out of prison with no services and no jobs, returning to communities that are even worse off than they were before. So many of them commit crimes again. Methamphetamine is a popular salve amid these crises.

A year before the 2004 violent crime uptick, the Bush regime thrust the country into an illegal war contrived by lies, unleashing criminal violence in Iraq, with the Afghanistan attack as prelude. The long-term effects of wars upon crime at home have been studied in some detail. One in eight returning soldiers, the US Army estimates, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these soldiers become powder kegs, prone to alchohol or drug addiction, and to violence.

On February 22, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, 24, was sentenced to 100 years in prison for the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, and the killing of her family last year. (He will be eligible for parole in ten years under the terms of his plea agreement.)

Tears, so the AP report told us, "rolled down Cortez’s face as he apologized for the rape and murders. He said he could not explain why he took part. ‘I still don’t have an answer,’ Cortez told the judge. ‘I don’t know why. I wish I hadn’t.’" The US attack on Iraq destroyed that family and thousands more. It destroyed Cortez. There will be physical and psychic wreckage from that war in most American communities for years to come.

Will any candidate in the months to come have the moral and intellectual fortitude to shun the lock-‘em-up grandstanding that has given us the American gulag? Will such a candidate connect crime abroad to crime at home? In Congressional appropriations the war has cost, thus far, $408 billion. In January 2006, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes reckoned the likely cost to be up to four times that total. Every dollar going to the war has been confiscated from constructive social purposes-from economic investment at home, from community repair, the creation of jobs, job training, reviving stricken communities.

That’s a populist theme that Senator James Webb seized upon in his response to Bush’s State of the Union. Edwards sounds the same theme from time to time, too. The moment is ripe for it.

* If the animal rights crowd raises a ruckus about cutting open a beast of the field to look at its liver, a qualified ooscopist can do a decent job by inspecting the yolk of an uncooked egg.

An earlier version of this column ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.