But it was itself stupid to imagine that the change in New York could all be credited to “the economy, stupid.” The truth was that a majority of New Yorkers — including even liberals whispering to one another at dinner parties, if rarely in public — had finally answered my question about whether the point would ever be reached when New Yorkers would stop tolerating the intolerable. That this point had indeed been reached was what put Giuliani into City Hall and gave him a mandate to see whether a crackdown would actually bring results even while at least some of the “root causes” of crime remained in place.
The second unexpectedly fruitful course Giuliani adopted in following through on this mandate was to enlarge the NYPD’s “street crime” unit. This was an elite force of plainclothes policemen who were sent to high-crime areas (which were invariably populated by blacks and Hispanics) and empowered to take measures that would prevent crime instead of just pursuing perpetrators after their crimes had been committed. Such measures included stopping suspicious-looking types and frisking them in the hope of confiscating concealed weapons.
It was four officers in this unit who last February pumped 19 bullets into an innocent young immigrant named Amadou Diallo from Guinea, under — so far as we know — the impression that he was a serial rapist for whom they had been searching and that he was about to pull a gun on them. Here was the golden opportunity Al Sharpton had been waiting for to launch what Arch Puddington, in a recent article in Commentary, aptly described as “The War on the War on Crime.” It was also the perfect cue for the temporarily silenced “root cause” crowd to find its voice again. Daily demonstrations were held featuring famous politicians and even more famous actors and actresses who demanded that federal investigations be launched. No comparably garish a show of “radical chic” had been seen in New York since Leonard Bernstein’s notorious party for the Black Panthers in 1970.
Never mind that, as George Kelling himself put it, under Giuliani “last year New York had 0.48 fatal shootings per 1,000 officers, the lowest figure since 1985.” Never mind that “in 1992, when David Dinkins was mayor, more than 2,200 people were murdered in New York City — a high proportion of them minorities,” as compared with just 600 under Giuliani in 1998 (“fewer,” added Kelling, “than in Chicago, whose population is barely one-third of New York’s”). Never mind that “sixteen hundred more New Yorkers would have died last year alone had crime remained at Dinkins-era levels.”
In spite of all this, the demonstrators shouted themselves hoarse spreading the egregious lie that police brutality and trigger-happiness had run amok under Giuliani. The reduction in crime, went their mantra, had been achieved by a systematic violation of the rights of innocent “minorities.”
Here, finally, I come to the reason I think that “evil” is not too strong a word to describe what is going on in New York. To quote Kelling again, this time on what might be characterized as the multiplier effect of the 1,600 lives saved by Giuliani’s crime-fighting policies: “Calculate the . . . families spared grief, youths not imprisoned, and we are talking about thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been immeasurably improved . . .” I contend that “evil” is precisely the right word for a campaign whose purpose is to undo so much good in order to resurrect a discredited ideological position and to reap a crassly partisan political advantage.
But will this evil drive succeed? Will New Yorkers once again allow themselves to be intimidated into tolerating the intolerable? I would guess not, and I hope not, if only because the taste of a better city is still fresh in their mouths.
If the worst were to happen, I myself might at long last give up on New York. Unlike Irving Kristol, I managed to remain here despite the loss of the intellectual community that made up my New York, and his, and I eventually built up a new life in new surroundings and with new friends. As befits the rapid advance of my age to three score and ten, and also suits my correlatively more reclusive habits, it is a less exciting and much less eventful life than I led when I was younger.
Still, in the past few years, there has been compensation in the resurrected pleasures of wandering about this great city that is my birthplace without having to avert my eyes from the sights of degradation that daily afflicted them not so long ago, or to look nervously over my shoulder after dark at the sound of approaching footsteps from behind, or to glance apprehensively at every street corner ahead.
“I’ll take Manhattan/The Bronx and Staten/Island too./It’s lovely going through/The zoo,” sang Rodgers and Hart once upon a time. Once upon a time, too, Fred Astaire danced in Central Park under the lamplight at night, crooning as he leaped from bench to bench something like, “I like New York in June/How about you?” And later Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra jumped all over the place (to the choreography of Robbins) singing (in the words of Comden and Green and to the music of Bernstein), “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town/The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down/The people ride in a hole in the ground.”
Alas, we have not yet arrived back at that romantic technicolor pass, and perhaps never will. Yet at the moment, just strolling in that same Central Park on a sunny Sunday in the spring is to encounter so many delights — the kids scampering, the dogs running, the roller-bladers skating, the joggers jogging, the cyclists biking, the boaters rowing, the girls sunbathing, the musicians performing, and all with nary a frown in view — that it is hard to believe how dangerous this place (where an 80 percent reduction in serious crime has occurred in the past six years) so recently was.
If, then, the evil designs of Al Sharpton and his ilk should prevail, New York might finally lose me. And that would of course be the least of so great a calamity.
— This article first appeared in the June 14, 1999, issue of National Review.