Broken windows and suitcases

Oct 2nd, 2007 | By | Category: Ireland

Back in 1982, James Q Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote Broken Windows, an article in The Atlantic Monthly.  It was addressed at reducing crime:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

The theory is a safe society depends upon order at all levels, trivial anti-social behaviour escalates to major anti-social behaviour.  While mayor of New York in the late-1990s, Rudi Giuliani presided over a major reduction in city crime.  Relatively minor offences such as graffiti, jumping the turnstiles on the subway, and aggressive car window cleaning at traffic lights would not be tolerated.  It sent out a message that criminality at any level was not acceptable.

Perhaps we need a “Broken Windows” strategy in Ireland.

Riding the DART into the city on Sunday afternoon, the walls for much of the journey are covered in graffiti, even areas that had been cleaned over the summer.  No, these are not alienated young people.  These are young people living in some of Europe’s most expensive districts who are engaged in straightforward anti-social behaviour.  No, we do not need to ask why they do it.  People have the power to make choices.  If I make the choice to go to Blackrock station and spray the walls with an aerosol; it’s not because of my social conditioning or Freudian problems, it’s because I chose to do so, and am anti-social.

If we addressed the problem of anti-social behaviour at the trivial level, it might send a message to some of our politicians that the law will be maintained and that cash in suitcases is more than just something to joke about in the pub.

There’s a line in Saint Luke’s Gospel, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”  Maybe it sums up what Broken Windows is saying.

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  1. Ian,

    In my city, the buses and subway trains
    used to be covered in graffiti. Also, any
    wall was considered a canvas by the graffiti
    “artists”.They used to have books of their
    “Art” and would go around comparing their
    work with the work of the other lowlifes
    who also defaced every surface in the city.

    Then someone got the bright idea of removing
    the drawings and scribblings as soon as
    humanly possible.They hired people to literally
    follow these people around with a bucket of
    paint and wipe out their “work” immediately
    after they finished.It was successful! They would
    go to all the trouble to steal the spray paint
    and spend an hour doing the scribbling only to
    have it wiped out before anyone could clap
    eyes on it.

    They stopped doing graffiti and now our trains
    are very clean and our walls have murals that
    the city commissioned real artists to do.

    The answer to these problems is really fairly
    simple. You have to outwit these characters
    and take back the city.

  2. Hi Nancy,

    There’s a kind of middle class liberalism that regards anti-social behaviour as an expression as some kind of cultural expression. The people who come up with such theories don’t have to live in the areas where life is often made miserable by an uncontrolled few. As soon as it’s their place that is broken into or their property that is damaged, they want tough police action!

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