Washington — "I wonder what's out there?" It was a startling query for William Webster, director of the FBI, to let drop even meditatively as he talked to a group of reporters at breakfast last week. A former federal judge from Missouri, he was named to the FBI by President Carter in 1978. His quiet, understated, judicial appearance is in bizarre contrast to his current task -- overseeing the FBI's investigation of the attempted assassination of President Reagan.
We had been talking about crimes of violence -- violence in America -- and the latest FBI index that shows the record of such crimes is up 13 percent over last year. What does it mean? There are those killings of children in Atlanta. There is the attack on the President. There are statistics of growing violence in the country. There is Chief Justice Warren Burger telling the American Bar Association Feb. 8 that "crime and fear of crime have permeated the fabric of American life . . ." There are 60 million concealable handguns circulating in America, and Congress restrained from action by indecision and fear of the gun lobby.
Judge Webstern continued his abstracted aside. He said that "gold chain cases" have increased.He said the police department in New York has over 200 cases of gold necklaces being snatched. Some women, he said, are not wearing jewelry on the streets. He told colorlessly of other examples: mothers, for example, giving their children pocket money to give up if necessary, so that they will not be brutalized. A kind of kid ransom early in life. "I wonder what's out there?" He said meditatively. The rest of the world wonders, too.
Is there a trend? Nobody really knows. Chief Justice Burger, in his speech to the ABA gave statistics from what he called "a recent poll" indicating that " 46 percent of the women and 48 percent of the Negroes are 'significantly frightened' by pervasive crime in America." Mr. Webster elaborated on this poll which was sponsored by Harry E. Figgie Jr., chief executive officer of A-T-O Inc., a multidivisional company. Judge Webster has sent "The Figgie Report on Fear of Crime: America Afraid," 1980, to his bureau chiefs. The ominous conclusion of the survey is that "Americans have today become afraid of one another." It describes two types of such fear, that of specific violent acts against the individual, and that of a more generalized social fear -- of being home alone, of being alone in the central business district, or even of one's own neighborhood.
According to the test, "concrete fear" affects 4 to 10 Americans and touches 70 percent of the population to some degree. So-called "highly victimized social groups" are most vulnerable -- almost half of young adults, women, blacks , the large-city dwellers.
The second category described as "formless fear" -- affects about the same proportion of society: 4 to 10 Americans. It is marked among the elderly, those with less than a high school education, people with low occupational station, people with low incomes, and those who are isolated, the retired, the unemployed , and part-time workers.
Material for the Figgie report came from 1,000 randomly selected people, answering 86 questions, in a national telephone survey. This is a smaller sampling than the Gallup or Roper polls and was made by Research and Forecasts, Inc, of New York.Yet it hardly takes a statistical survey to show the anxieties in American society. When this reporter was a boy the family in Flatbush went out for the evening without locking the doors. It seemed safer then. Let Warren Burger give the verdict, speaking at a time when the austerity budget is reducing aid to police forces in many American cities but when President Reagan has authorized a survey of the subject of crime by the attorney general:
"We have established a system of criminal justice that provides more protection, more safeguards, more guarantees for those accused of crime than any other nation in all history." And the chief justice declared, "Like it or not, today we are approaching the status of an impotent society -- whose capability of maintaining elementary security on the streets, in schools, and for the homes of the people is in doubt."
"I wonder what's out there? " asked FBI chief William Webster.