Imagine my surprise when, after picture day at school last year, I received a milk-carton-style mug shot of my second-grader. It came along with a code number and an offer to keep my child's information in a special database in case of abduction. Somehow, seeing my daughter's gap-tooth smile photo-shopped into a crime-victim layout did not warm my heart. I didn't take advantage of the special offer.
But I'm sure plenty of parents did. After all, the website that lets you check how many sex offenders live in your zip code generates brisk traffic.
My kids and I were also recently treated to an "Amber Alert" test on local radio, even though the total number of Amber Alerts issued for missing children in Wisconsin is, um, zero.
Just about every category of crime is currently way down in Madison. Statistics released last week show a 53% drop in burglaries, a nearly 10% decline in violent crime, and a 48% drop in reported rapes over the last six months. But that doesn't seem to have much effect on the general climate of paranoia.
Take David Blaska's post on TheDailyPage.com last week regarding the "hornet's nest" that Madison Police Chief Noble Wray stirred up when he commented on the culture clash between older whites and black and Latino youth who scare them on the city's southwest side.
You can read the comments yourself, about blaring rap music and excessively low-riding pants. According to a prevailing theory among Blaska enthusiasts, these are evidence of a criminal mindset.
Now I know what you are thinking: This is where I am going to begin my PC rant about racism and cultural diversity. But no. Hasn't that topic been talked to death? After last week's national festival of attention on the arrest of a certain Harvard professor, how much is there left to say about race, crime and stereotypes?
Instead, I would like to focus on a phrase that pops up frequently in discussions of neighborhood crime: "quality of life."
It might seem that living in fear of having your children abducted, your house broken into, and other kinds of imminent, violent attack would actually reduce the quality of life for folks who harbor such fears.
And yet, despite the actual statistical decline in crime, Madisonians are more worked up than ever. One commentor, John Smith, laments, "People are prisoners where they pay the taxes and being controlled by those who are getting their rent paid by the government." And Blaska wrings his hands over "all the giveaway programs that, in effect, subsidize the criminal lifestyle."
"Certainly leadership and parenting are lacking," writes "Karen XXXX," whose response to Chief Wray is posted by Blaska. "What I see is a generation either ignorant of respectful behavior or having no regard for law and civility."
Clearly, being outraged is fun. It enhances the quality of life for some folks.
We in the media know that. News and infotainment have been placing an exaggerated focus on minority youth and crime for decades now. A 2001 study produced by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, entitled "Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News," found that, although youth homicides declined by 68% from 1993 to 1999, 62% of the public thought they went up.
"It is not just that African Americans and other people of color are overrepresented as criminals and underrepresented as victims, or that young people are overrepresented as criminals, or that violent crime itself is given exaggerated coverage," the study concluded. "It is that all three occur together, combining forces to produce a terribly unfair and inaccurate overall image of crime in America."
But why be a killjoy? Imagining the worst is a national pastime, right up there with baseball. So, in the interest of furthering fun for the rest of the summer, I suggest we engage in a citywide game of "Crime Wave."
Let's pretend that crime, instead of declining, is on the rise. Teenagers who want to pose as thugs should be issued giant squirt guns and brought together to reenact scenes from Public Enemies. Blaska and like-minded neighbors can hunker down and give us their best Clint Eastwood. There could be awards for best actor.
We can have fingerprinting and Amber Alert drills at summer birthday parties.
The possibilities are endless.
For the rest of the summer, we can really pretend we live in a scary, dangerous, crime-ridden city, instead of a rather tame Midwestern college town.
Maybe if we get it out of our system, come September when the kids go back to school, we can all calm down and get back to our usual, mundane and peaceful business.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.