US Must Curb Violence to Regain Civility and Strength

A FEW months ago my wife and I were renting a car at the Baltimore airport. We had an unusual amount of luggage and had reserved a full-size Chevrolet. The rental agency clerk said: "We've got a great offer; for another dollar a day you can have a Cadillac."

It sounded like a good deal, and I was about to take it when my wife drew me aside. "We don't want to do that," she said. "It's just too dangerous driving around Baltimore and Washington in a luxury car." At first I scoffed, but then, remembering the current number of carjackings, often with accompanying violence, I realized she might be right. We took the Chevrolet.

We are certainly not alone in our caution. Rent-a-wreck agencies are apparently doing a booming business renting to travelers who don't want to be seen in cars that might attract the attention of carjackers. The travelers are not paranoid. In Florida earlier this year, a German tourist just hours off the plane was murdered by thieves who wanted her car. In Maryland a woman was dragged to her death when carjackers drove off with her car, her baby still in it. In Los Angeles a pregnant woman was stabbed to

death when a carjacker targeted her car. The problem is no longer simple car theft. It is the rising wave of murder that accompanies such thefts.

Much of the violence is indiscriminate. James Jordan, father of basketball star Michael Jordan, pulls his red Lexus off the road in North Carolina to take a nap. He is killed by two teenage robbers. Says a state investigator: It's the "kind of random violence that all the public is concerned about and is afraid of."

Much of the violence is being committed by increasingly younger delinquents. A Time magazine cover story on teenage gun-toters says some 100,000 students in America carry a gun to school. One student poll showed 15 percent of students in the sixth through 12th grades carrying a handgun in the past 30 days. Eleven percent said they had been shot at. Some 59 percent said they knew where to get a gun if they needed one.

All this is taking place against a backdrop of violence - along with indiscriminate sexuality and profanity - which the cultural taste-mongers of our society are consciously propagating in film, on television, in pop-music lyrics, and in books. It is incredible that at a time when there is questioning of this tastelessness, Steven Bochco, creator of "Hill Street Blues," is demanding that television sink to a new low with his upcoming "NYPD Blue." While there is at least a token effort to reduce violence on other TV shows, Mr. Bochco is pressing to include a kind of R-rated nudity, profanity, and violence on his show.

Apologists for this crudity-advanced-as-culture argue that there is no link between violence on the screen and violence in real life. Even if this questionable thesis were true, so what? Do Americans really want their society to be portrayed expressing the violence of Lebanon, Colombia, or South Africa? No wonder less-violent societies find our gun-toting nation, its TV laden with gore, incomprehensible. There are a few signs of hope. TV networks are becoming sensitive about public and congressional crit icism. Advertisers - the real power - are becoming skittish about sponsoring violent TV serials; they can do the nation a service by boycotting Bochco's new show. Meanwhile, from the black community there is a backlash against the eroticism of rap lyrics. More power to such protesters. No wonder Pope John Paul II lashed out at pornography, sexual disorder, and violence and warned that America might "lose its soul."

The question is whether the most powerful nation in the world wants also to be one of the most civilized.

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