A very long time ago when I was a young police reporter, I asked a grizzled homicide cop why he thought someone had slashed the young woman lying dead before us into one big bowl of Frito pie. He thought about it, put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Kid, people who do shit like that don't think right."
Dissatisfied, I said, "Yeah, but what would prevent something this horrible from ever happening again?"
He gave more thought to that one. Sucked on a smoke, nodded solemnly and looked at me sidelong to show respect for my question. Finally he said, "Well, I think people need to act better."
I remembered this today while I pondered the news that, to everyone's astonishment in these pre-apocalyptic-feeling times, crime has fallen in Dallas for the eighth straight year, mirroring a strong national trend, with murders in Dallas falling to their lowest number since 1967, when the city's population was 70 percent of what it is today.
These numbers strongly contradict the narrative that we're a powder-snorting, vein-injecting, drunken-driving society of pedophile rapists headed straight to hell in a rocket ship. The numbers say we're straightening up and flying, if not right, righter.
I have written here before about Travis Hirschi (University of Arizona) and Michael Gottfredson (University of California-Irvine), authors of a groundbreaking book in 1990 called A General Theory of Crime. In the build-up to their big theory, the authors amassed overwhelming evidence from research carried out over 20 years to show that most of our thinking about causes of crime is just bullshit.
The root cause is not poverty. It's not education, class, race, scary movies, intimate exposure to Newt Gingrich's personal life, any of that stuff. All of those have been thoroughly tested and debunked as universal root causes of crime.
What the evidence shows is that people of all classes and social subgroups enter the world with pretty much the same predisposition toward or against criminality.
Then things happen. There are big differences, for example, in what happens to people when they get caught the first few times. The Hispanic gang kid gets sent to juvie. The rich white kid gets sent to Wyoming. But the initial tendency to commit those first acts of crime is the same on all groups.
Crime is not a career choice, like, "Wow, print journalism isn't working out for me too well anymore. I think I'll do home invasions." There is something else in it.
Gottfredson and Hirschi said the root is "self-control" or the lack of it. If you have self-control, you'll earn that big flat-screen television the hard way, by becoming a print journalist. If you don't have self-control, you'll grab that television set off the shelf at Best Buy and run as fast as you can.
Since their book came out, a lot of other scholars have accused them of tautology. At first I was very shocked. I thought, "Damnation, how did these people ever get to be professors in the first place if people knew they were tautologists?" Then I realized I didn't really know it meant.
Looked it up. It's repeating the same statement as an explanation of itself. As in, daily newspaper circulation is declining because fewer people are taking the paper. Or, crime numbers are falling because fewer crimes are being committed. Or, the root cause of crime is the inability of people to stop themselves from committing crimes.
Yeah. I see that. I never thought the self-control thing was the interesting part of their book. I was fascinated by all of the sociological factors they said were not the causes of crime, mainly because I was a print journalist, and print journalism has never strayed from a narrative that insists sociology is the answer, no matter what the research shows.
You see it today. Especially when crime falls during tough economic times like these, somebody writes a story saying the decline is surprising or mysterious, given the hard times. But surprising and mysterious to whom? Print journalists? Because it doesn't surprise or mystify criminologists one bit.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
I decided at some point that Gottfredson and Hirschi, exponents of the great Positivist Movement in sociology by which everything must be proven scientifically, brought themselves up against a certain fence, gazed into the next field of evidence and spied a land where they feared, as positivists, to tread.
Morality. Crime is moral behavior -- well, immoral. But it's about morality. And morality doesn't come from or respond to sociology. It is the parent, not the child of sociology. So that's why they gave up and started committing tautology.
I look at today's headlines, recall the words of that old Detroit homicide detective, and I wonder: What if we're actually getting better? And if we are, why can't we see it? Why do we seem not to want to see it? Or is that just me? Am I the one in need of change?
Fine with me. I'll survive. I'm thinking about that home invasion thing. That's actually a related field.