Politics & Policy

Stop! Thief!

Editor’s note: This is William F. Buckley Jr.’s “On the Right” column from May 3, 1996.

Jerry was rounding the corner, his arms full of potted plants. He spotted the rear end of the station wagon, parked on Madison and 73rd Street in Manhattan, and was startled to see the car beginning to move. He dropped the plants and ran toward the car, but it was now moving faster, and approaching from the rear was a huge van. Jerry raced to the end of the block and saw the driver turn and head toward 5th Avenue.

#ad#He rushed to the telephone and called the police. A 1987 Buick station wagon. Connecticut plates. No, he didn’t remember the license number but he’d get it in minutes and call it in. Jerry returned, disconsolate, to the apartment, and told my wife her car had been stolen.

Word reached me quickly in Connecticut, where I was working. The first question: What was in the car? Answer: A bunch of mail from the office. Anything special about the mail? Well, yes, there were 280 individual letters addressed to the editor, commenting on National Review’s recent proposal that, the war against drugs having been lost, the time had come to consider legalization. The other stuff was mostly unimportant — what mattered in it had been copied. So what was there to do?

Nothing. You look at it this way: If (I got the exact figure the next day) — if there are 72,000 car thefts in New York City every year, one of those, in due course, is going to be your car. If you have been driving in and out of the city for forty-odd years, the wonder of it is that your turn didn’t come up earlier. But then, progressively, other considerations mature in the mind.

– The replacement cost of a stolen car can be far from trivial. Insurance on this old model would bring in $5,000; replacement of it with a current model, five times that.

– The car was the special love of my wife. It wasn’t just any old car, but her gorgeous great station wagon into which she could fit one hundred potted plants; and they don’t make the model any more.

– A shaft of ice water jets into your spirit. James Jackson Kilpatrick wrote some years ago about being mugged. It was, as these things go, a clean operation. The blow knocked him out of action, the wallet was taken, and a few minutes later he was physically whole. But he felt pulsations of indignation, the special fright and resentment that comes from rude reminders of the vulnerability of everything we depend upon, from elevators to safety on the street to parked cars. Kilpatrick confessed to an overnight depression over the meaning of it. I began to understand.

– You wonder about the aggressor. What are his prospects? You shake up your research resources. There were 1.5 million cars stolen last year, 169,000 arrests. Ten per cent, roughly. How many convictions? Nobody knows. More accurately, nobody I know, knows. Herbert Stein, that very morning, had written in the Wall Street Journal that the primary plague of the very poor in America isn’t lack of food, shelter, or medicine. It is the heightened exposure to crime, drugs, miseducation, and the absence of a parent. All of this doesn’t combine to make you suddenly lighthearted at the relative levity of your loss, but perspectives are always useful. . . .

The next morning, a phone call. Across the street, the civic-minded man reported, he had seen a car, its door left open. He idled over to it, found on the front seat a little address book with Jerry’s name on it and his telephone number. He recited the license number. ‘‘Is that your car?’’

Jerry was there, in the Bronx, in a half hour. Very strange. The car was intact except that the shaft on the steering wheel had been broken, to fetch out the wires that needed to be fused to start the car. Two hubcaps and the spare tire were gone. Two hundred eighty letters to the editor were intact.

‘‘Funny,’’ I said to Jerry when the car limped in, ‘‘risking a couple of years in jail to get two hubcaps and a spare tire.’’

Jerry has been around and he knows the conventions of the street. He doesn’t waste words; getting to the point is Jerry Garvey’s specialty. ‘‘He didn’t risk much.’’

‘‘What if he had been caught?’’

‘‘Probably would have been let go.’’

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard — impossible? — to get the figures. How many of the 10 per cent of those who steal cars and are arrested are prosecuted? Sent to jail?

Moral? Get whatever it is they talk about that you stick in the car and it slows down the thief. If the thief is a cadet from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, at least if you slow him down you’ll make him late for class.

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