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Wed, 14 Jun 2000 12:15:03 -0400 (EDT)

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Broken Windows

SMALL THINGS MATTER," New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told Congress a year ago, touting his famous crackdown on panhandlers, pot smokers, squeegee men, drunks, homeless people who sleep in the subway, and irresponsible people who play their boomboxes too loudly.<P>
"Respect breeds respect -- for the law and one another," said the mayor, who has proved to be one of the most outspoken proponents of the idea that small crimes must be punished lest they blossom into large ones; that ignoring tiny infractions leads inexorably to mayhem and social disorder.<P>
"When a window in a neighborhood building is broken and no one repairs it, that sends a subtle message that it is acceptable to destroy property," the mayor said, using the common metaphor to articulate this, the so-called broken-windows theory of law enforcement, a pet crime-fighting strategy of conservatives as well as (in secret) many liberals, particularly crime-wary suburban ones. At the same time, however, it's an approach that has been challenged by civil libertarians, who point out that police sweeps of low-level street crimes most often target the poor. Challenged, too, by ordinary citizens appalled at how aggressive policing led to the shooting deaths of two unarmed black men.<P>
And now: Through his relationship with a "very good friend," the mayor has apparently set out to prove the broken-windows theory by his own amazing example.<P>
Adultery -- in case anybody cares -- is still a crime in New York. A neglected crime, I grant you, but so was subway turnstile-jumping until Giuliani identified it as a major root cause for social decay and started arresting turnstile jumpers, handcuffing and jailing them under the premise that they might also be members of, who knows, the Colombian drug cartel. In fact, as a class B misdemeanor, adultery is in the same legal category as public lewdness, unlawful assembly, selling fireworks, selling Mace, selling cigarettes to minors, loitering for the purpose of buying or using drugs, and (my personal favorite) tattooing a person under the age of 18 -- precisely the sort of petty social crimes New York City police have been encouraged to target. Like sex laws that remain on the books in many other states, New York's adultery statute is a remnant of a time in America when it was widely accepted that private sexual behavior was a matter of genuine public concern; that illicit s!
exual activity led to broken marriages, bastard children, abandoned wives, which is to say, to mayhem and social disorder.<P>
That belief has fallen out of fashion, of course, especially when it comes to powerful men. And so two years ago, when Vanity Fair set out a devastatingly detailed description of Giuliani's extramarital relationship with a staffer (both parties denied the liaison, but the evidence was overwhelming), the long-term reaction was polite discretion, a sort of uncomfortable, if-it's-okay-with-his-wife-it's-okay-with-us attitude, a collective yawn so pervasive that, after that relationship fizzled out and the staffer had been relocated to another high-paying city job, the mayor proceeded to embark on another. Small things matter!<P>
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that we can't be sure, just because Giuliani describes his new nurse-companion, Judi Nathan, as a "very good friend," that he committed adultery. But the thing about aggressive policing is that you don't have to be sure. You can just strike on the merest suspicion. Look at Patrick Dorismond, the security guard killed during a marijuana sweep. Look at Amadou Diallo. 7/8<P>
Now, I know what you're also thinking. You're thinking: The man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he looks awful, his father died of it, can't we let the infidelity stuff slide? But the other thing about aggressive policing is that you can't feel sorry for people. Homeless people might be drug addicts, loiterers might be mentally ill, but that doesn't make them any less threatening to public order.<P>
No indeed. And so it is Giuliani himself who proves the validity of his central tenet, showing that when you fool around with a woman not your wife, and you are not put in the stocks, or thrown in jail overnight, then pretty soon you start to feel invincible, to the point where you are marching with a woman not your wife in a St. Patrick's Day parade, and letting yourself be photographed with her, looking all goofy and happy, and blasting the press for invading your privacy at the same time that you are using the press to announce a separation from your wife, who -- small things matter! respect breeds respect! -- comes unhinged to the point of calling a press conference to denounce your philandering. Because -- in part -- of these incremental actions, you are forced to drop out of the New York Senate race, creating very happy sledding for no less than Hillary Clinton, which is to say -- from the conservative point of view -- for mayhem. Social disorder. Small things matter! If!
 the people who express this view most vehemently would apply it to themselves (did somebody mention Newt Gingrich?), American politics would be as clean and unremarkable as the new, Giulianified Times Square.<P>
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is mundyl@washpost.com.