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Thugs Are People, Too  
Why crime dropped in New York after the terror attacks  
   

NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
 
    Oct. 1 —  Are the criminals depressed, too? Sure seems that way. In the week after the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, crime was down 34 percent from a comparable week last year. The following week, crime remained down, this time nearly 20 percent across the board. A city that usually sees a dozen homicides in a week had four. Rapes, robberies, assaults are all down as well.  

     
     
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  IT’S NOT JUST good policing. Something else is afoot here. Newspapers have been filled with stories about how all of us—urban professionals, restaurant busboys, firemen, livery drivers, bankers, lawyers and even our political leaders—now constitute a class of walking wounded, people suffering from everything from mild sleeplessness to extreme cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.


        Watching the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center burn and then collapse has made many New Yorkers simply unable to get out of bed to go to work. It has made them wake up to a backfiring car in the middle of the night with immediate thoughts that the Empire State Building has been hit. It has made them question the contents of every Ryder truck they see. It has made them—hell, let’s drop the pretense, it has made me—too scared to function without fortifying doses of caffeine, lager or something even stronger.
        The implication, of course, is that a large segment of the population is not working at full efficiency. So with crime reports down dramatically, I put two and two together (I was always good at math) and figured out that something revolutionary is occurring: Criminals are also too depressed to work.
        “There is nothing about knocking off grocery stores that makes you immune to severe stress situations,” said Dennis Wenger, a Texas A&M professor who specializes in the sociology of natural disasters. “Just because someone engages in criminal behavior, doesn’t mean that he’s not a human being, subject to the same stresses as the rest of us.”
        Wenger theorized that feelings of social altruism are even more powerful than the depression we’re all experiencing. Just as during a natural disaster, people are feeling attached to the greater community and, as such, are less likely to betray it.
        “That’s why, despite the myth, looting is actually quite uncommon during disasters like hurricanes or an attack like the one on the World Trade Center that brings people together,” Wenger said. “There is a tremendous social pressure to be a good citizen. Selfish acts are condemned.”
        Perhaps, but criminals are typically not the segment of the population that cares about societal norms. In fact, isn’t the point of the would-be criminal to stand in opposition to social cohesion?

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        Maybe in normal times, but drastic times demand drastic measures, even from our outlaw subclass. Crime rates, after all, dropped during the Depression and World War II, largely, experts believe, because of the “We’re all in this together” spirit.
        The whole thing made me want to call Oklahoma City. If terror can induce social cohesion even from criminals, it would certainly show up in that heartland city, victim of an earlier version of what New York experienced on Sept. 11.
        A police spokeswoman there confirmed that crime dropped during the week after the April 19 bombing. To illustrate how eerily calm the city was, she said that not a single dollar was stolen from several banks located near the ill-fated Murrah building, even though the banks were unguarded for several days, their tills wide open.
        “For four days, there was no significant criminal activity,” added Steve Sloan, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in terrorism. “Criminals get affected by the same things we do. Being a criminal is not a 24-hour-a-day job. At times like these, they want to be a part of the community, too.”
        New York’s police commissioner Bernard Kerik acknowledged as much, attributing the city’s drop in crime to the positive feeling criminals get seeing police officers doing the heroic job of rescue and recovery. “I think people see the heroics,” Kerik said. ”[Rescue workers] putting themselves at risk each day. This is really more representative of what the department is all about versus the negative perception that is created sometimes over one or two incidents.” Kerik’s implication, of course, is that criminals can sometimes be inspired by the cops who chase them.

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       Tyler Carpenter, a psychologist who works in prisons, said he’s seen a profound “depth of feeling” from the inmates he’s worked with, many of whom have expressed a desire to help with the rescue, if they could. “The disaster and their imprisonment makes them feel inadequate,” he said. “They want to respond.”
        Some have. One of the most heartening of all the stories from the World Trade Center rescue effort came out of Louisiana’s notorious state penitentiary at Angola, where 5,000 inmates (including 10 on death row) donated more than $11,000—and pledged close to $20,000 from their next prison rodeo—for the Red Cross in the days after the attack.
        “These guys are criminals,” said warden Burl Cain, “but they’re Americans and they love their country.” Well, at least they do now.
       

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at http://www.gersh.tv

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