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by Peter Moskos

May 3, 2010

Eyes on the Street Help Defuse Times Square Car Bomb

Kudos to the NYPD and the bomb squad for doing their job well. That work is no joke.

In her wonderful The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote, "It does not take many incidents of violence to make people fear the streets. And as they fear them, they use them less, which makes the streets still more unsafe." Jacobs talked about "eyes on the street," the idea that strangers are not the problem but an essential public-safety asset. In the city, it's the deserted street that is dangerous. But in our overly fearful society, this idea is often forgotten.

Of course Jacobs was talking about "normal" crime and not terrorism, but the lesson is the same:
First, we must understand that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary though they are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.
Think of it, in this modern hi-tech age of gadgets and gizmos, what we saw was a scene (minus the SUV) straight out of 1875: a street vendor telling an officer on a horse about a crudely made bomb. There is a lesson in this; there's no substitute for eyes on the street and good old-fashioned policing.

And yet...

New York City, at least until yesterday, has been trying to push street vendors off the streets under the guise that vendors are a public safety hazard.

Just the other day, the Daily News complained in an editorial that:
Second-rate peddlers wrapping themselves in the First Amendment do not have unfettered license to set up shop in busy pedestrian thoroughfares.... These folks are freeloaders who assert the right to sell what they want, where they want, on the grounds that they're expressing themselves.
In a few key park spots where New Yorkers and tourists tend to gather, a suffocating stream of vendors has descended like flies on a horse.
In this case that fly helped stop an explosion and that horse had a police office riding on it. Of course the vendor could have been a tourist and the tourist could have tried to flag down a passing police car. But he wasn't and he didn't.

Too many cities say that horses are too expensive when we need that law enforcement money to, you know, fight terrorism.

And this vendor may be a military veteran (vendors always claim to be veterans because being a veteran grants them privileged vendor status). But what if he weren't? What if he were illegal? Most street vendors here are illegal. I'd bet my house that the churros vendor on the N/R/W subway platform at 59th and Lexington is three times illegal: vendor, food seller, and illegal immigrant. But by standing alertly on that platform, she sees more than any passenger (and the churros ain't bad). But would she go to police if she saw something? I hope so. But I wouldn't place even money on that bet.

"The police are the public and that the public are the police," wrote Robert Peel back in 1829 when he invented the very concept of modern police, "The police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen." The more we get away from that ideal, the more dangerous our world becomes.

Police are not supposed to be government agents of fear and repression. In the fight against terrorism, local police can't be jack-booted thugs. The more things we criminalize, the more groups we push underground, the more people fear interaction with the police... the more likely the next bomb will blow.


Anonymous said...

Good essay. Hard to tell yet whether this was an actual terrorist act or simply a lone whacko seeking attention.

PCM said...


I'm going with lone wacko. But who knows?

What scares me, and I'm not the first to say this, is that we're pretty good at stopping stupid terrorists. Stopping a smart terrorist is much harder. Stopping a smart terrorist who is willing to die is almost impossible.