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Crime and the Culture War

 Kitty Genovese died while her neighbors did nothing — and they're not the only ones


On March 14, 1964, The New York Times carried a brief item on Page 26: “Queens Woman Is Stabbed To Death in Front of Home.” It was an ordinary story about a crime that, even in 1964, was not too extraordinary in a city of 8 million people. At first there were no suspects. But a few days later, a man who’d been arrested in connection with another crime blurted out a confession to police. “I killed her,” he told them, and he described how he stalked the woman on the street, raped her and took her life.

It was a frightful tale. But what really horrified the officers is what else he said: It took him 30 minutes to finish her off, and people were looking out their windows at it the whole time.

Putting together Winston Moseley’s statement with interviews at the crime scene, police determined that a screaming Kitty Genovese had been assaulted, raped, mutilated and stabbed to death while 38 people within earshot did nothing to stop it. Some witnessed the whole thing. Some even pulled up chairs so they could gawk more comfortably. One man called out for the killer to “leave her alone” — advice the killer rejected. But no one came to Kitty’s rescue. No one even called the cops until it was all over.

New York’s police commissioner shared all this with Times metro editor A.M. Rosenthal, and two weeks after the crime, Rosenthal played it up big. That’s how Miss Genovese’s shocking fate entered American legend.

Not long ago, the History Channel aired a documentary about the case, with interviews of Rosenthal, Kitty’s brother William and others, as well as an update on Moseley’s status. (He’s still alive, and still behind bars.)

The program didn’t name or interview any of the infamous 38 witnesses, but as the saying goes, “They know who they are.” And as Rosenthal points out, the question raised by their failure to come to Kitty’s aid is not so much “What’s wrong with them?” as “What would I have done?”

It’s a question that haunted William Genovese, who went to Vietnam in part to prove to himself that he would come through for others in the face of danger. The driven man took a chance in combat and lost both his legs to a land mine. [1]

It’s a question that haunted Abe Rosenthal, who, unlike so many of his colleagues, would not turn his back on the victims of crime. (As recently as 1998, he distinguished himself in that regard. While others on the Left were excusing and minimizing the offenses of a sexual miscreant who happened to be their political leader, Rosenthal compared Bill Clinton’s conduct toward Paula Jones to that of a flasher who years ago had accosted his young sister Bess, so scaring her that she fled headlong, arriving home drenched in sweat — and dying of pneumonia a few days later.) [2]

Not everyone is haunted by such things, however. There are those who have never been very angry about crime in America, who ignored it when it was at its worst, who actually took pride in not being angry about it, and took pleasure in despising those who were. That perverse attitude toward crime was common among the liberals of the 1960s and ’70s. It persisted through the ’80s and ’90s, and it lingers among many die-hard leftists even today. That, more than anything else, is what has given liberalism a bad name.

 And it involved sins of commission as well as omission. Those prideful people were more than mere passive bystanders to a woman’s screams. As Kitty Genovese and people like her were dying in their thousands, liberals championed a battery of legal and social changes that made matters worse.

They impeded and softened law enforcement. They banished prayer and traditional moral instruction from the public schools. They promoted “recreational drug use.” They rationalized lawbreaking among poor people and minorities. They opened popular culture to corrupting strains that earlier generations had kept under control. Then they disclaimed all responsibility for the results.

Kitty’s murder was one of the first crimes in a great wave of mayhem that would sweep over America. In the space of three decades, the per-capita murder rate doubled. Major crimes against property tripled. Rape and robbery more than quadrupled. And aggravated assault — boosted by the same advances in emergency medical care that retarded the murder rate — peaked at more than five times its per-capita rate of 1960. [3]

(A murderous attack in which the victim survives is apt to be classified as an aggravated assault. As ambulance crews and hospital emergency rooms achieved greater success in saving the victims of such attacks, the rates of aggravated assault and of murder began to diverge. [see chart]  Today, although the murder rate is close to returning to its 1960 level, the rate of aggravated assault is much, much higher. Americans continue to suffer murderous attacks far more frequently than we did two generations ago.) [4]

The mighty crime wave has been ebbing for some years now. That trend flattened out a bit as the new century began, but it has not yet turned back toward the heights of the early ’90s. With any luck, aggravated assault may soon be only three times its 1960 rate. And the really good news is that crime’s decline has persisted despite predictions it would be reversed by the “baby boom echo” — the coming of age of the baby boomers’ children. [NOTE: This was written before the upturn of the past two years became apparent. Crime's resurgence is, as yet, small; whether it shall continue depends on what we do now, not on what boomer couples did two decades ago. —— Karl Spence, May 2007.] 

Ten years ago, James Alan Fox, dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, called the downturn “the calm before the crime storm” and forecast “an impending crime wave of teen violence … as the adolescent population begins to rise.” [5]

It hasn’t happened. And that shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that the original baby boom did not cause the big crime wave it’s often blamed for.

Those who want some no-fault explanation for the crime wave have fastened on the baby boom. But in 1960, “crime-prone” young adults comprised 8.9 percent of the population and accounted for 18 percent of arrests; in 1980, they peaked at 13.3 percent of the population and accounted for 35 percent of arrests. The 18-24 age bracket had doubled its share of arrests while its share of the population increased only by half — an increase in youthful criminality which, though it may be the fault of young people’s upbringing in the 1960s and ’70s, cannot be blamed on their mere existence. Nor can the surge in young adults explain the fact that other age groups were becoming more lawless as well.

Had there been no changes in American society other than the baby boom’s “pig in the python” movement through the age brackets, then one would expect, based on the 1960 arrest percentages, an increase in crime due solely to age shift of 10 percent — a tiny fraction of the actual increase. [6]

So, how could it have happened that crime surged the way it did? Consider the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. Why weren’t more of us — in particular, why weren’t society’s self-appointed watchdogs — barking?

When crime’s recent downturn first became apparent, those who cheered the anticipated return of law and order included some who had never missed it when it left. As crime statistics were going up, liberal commentators often called the increases illusory; then they seized on every downturn, without questioning the figures or putting them in perspective, as proof that the problem after all was not so bad as to require emergency action.

The controversy began in the early 1960s, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover gave a series of warnings that rising crime threatened the well-being of the nation. His view of the matter had not changed since his salad days. “Crime,” he had told the University of Maryland’s class of 1936, “is a dangerous, cancerous condition which, if not curbed and beaten down, will soon eat at the very vitals of the country.” [7]  But in the 1960s, Hoover’s days of being invited to speak at college campuses were long gone, and a view that had once been taken as common sense had come to be dismissed as reactionary.

The word from the academy was that Hoover was crying wolf and that no substantial change in crime rates had occurred. And even after it became obvious that a serious crime problem had developed and now demanded attention, persons who professed a passionate commitment to the idea of progress still refused to take alarm. Never mind that they were witnessing the reversal of a decades-long decline in criminal activity. What they deplored instead was the rise of “scare politics.” The risk to individuals, they insisted, continued to be statistically small. [8]

Liberals remained calm as the raw number of robberies increased sevenfold in two decades, from 56,770 incidents in 1956 to 420,210 in 1976. Mass murder became so common that multiple killings frequently were reported on the inside pages of the newspaper. By the fall of 1976, when an elderly couple in New York City were robbed and tortured twice in their own apartment and then hanged themselves, leaving a note that said they didn’t want “to live in fear anymore,” few Americans noticed. The slaughter and plunder of American citizens had become a basic part of the American way of life. [9]

Even though that South Bronx tragedy played out within a month of the presidential election, neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter chose to make an issue of it. Handlers in both parties no doubt remembered the contempt with which opinion leaders had received Richard Nixon’s calls for law and order eight years before.

For example, legal scholar Alexander Bickel in 1968 called Nixon’s anti-crime stance a “demagogic appeal … wrong-headed to the point of mindlessness … an irresponsible and dangerous tactic … scare statistics with a political slant.” Nixon, Bickel huffed, “has not yet learned how to attain a level of discourse suitable to the politics of the American Presidency.” [10]

Contempt for the law-and-order set was displayed also by the influential psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who wrote: “Crime problems have been dealt with too long with only the aid of common sense. Catch criminals and lock them up; if they hit you, hit them back. This is common sense, but it does not work.” To Menninger, robbers, rapists and other such arbitrarily defined “deviants” were mere scapegoats; the “real” criminals were the rest of society, the ones who “commit the crime of damning some of our fellow citizens with the label ‘criminal.’ … ‘Doesn’t anybody care about the victims?’ cry some demagogues, with melodramatic flourishes. ‘Why should all this attention be given to the criminals and none to those they have beaten or robbed?’ This childish outcry has an appeal for the unthinking.” [11]

By the 1990s, enough lives had been lost that even many liberals (or, as it often happened, ex-liberals) were having second thoughts about whether people really are “unthinking” to have it in for crime. But for others, the sheer pleasure of condescension toward their “childish,” crime-fearing neighbors was too much to give up. So when the crest of the Great Crime Wave had passed, its ebbing revealed a few unteachables clinging to the rocks.  

Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, for example. “The stats say crime is going down,” she proclaimed in 1993, adding that the stats are going down because “the cohort that commits the most crime — 17- to 24-year-olds — is shrinking relative to the rest of the population.” Months earlier, Ivins had countered calls for law and order by comparing crime to a harmless chicken snake, which “will not hurt you,” but can “scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself.” [12]

For people who think like that, the baby-boom theory offers both reassurance and absolution. “The collapse of law and order is not our fault,” it tempts them to say. “No policies of ours need to be changed, no reforms reversed, no errors confessed. This crime wave is just an inevitable side-effect of all the love-making our parents did after World War II. And when the baby boomers grow older, the problem will solve itself!”

That’s a nice alibi, but as “the stats” show, it doesn’t wash. Sorry, Molly.

Criminologist James Q. Wilson, a prominent dissenter among the academics who sought to explain the crime wave, has stated flatly: “Age shift could not by itself have produced the crime increases of the 1960s and 1970s.” [13]

Scholars indeed have had a hard time fathoming crime’s rise and fall. Consider the pessimistic Professor Fox. After four and a half years of waiting for “the calm before the crime storm” to come to an end, he saw some prospect of vindication when crime statistics leveled off in the first half of 2000.

“The 1990s crime drop has ended with the 1990s,” he announced. “This is the criminal justice limbo stick. We just can’t go any lower. We’ve had eight straight, wonderful years of declining crime rates, and at a certain point you just can’t push those numbers further down, and we’ve hit that point.” [14]

He said this when America’s per-capita crime rate remained more than twice what it was in 1960.

Crime in the ’50s was far below what Fox imagines to be its natural floor, and that low rate was maintained with far fewer convicts rotting in prison than we have today. What has changed between then and now to make such a difference?

In his 1983 essay “Crime and American Culture,” Wilson offered his theory of what was happening. He told how, beginning in the Roaring Twenties and achieving dominance in recent decades, a movement away from “Victorian morality” transformed American life. Coming on the heels of the baby boom, this “youth culture” abandoned the old values of self-restraint and deferred gratification. It emphasized rights over duties, and it rejected all moral limits not immediately and obviously connected with the rights of others — and often trampled even those that are.

The idea of “liberation,” Wilson said, gave legitimacy “to all forms of self-expression — including, alas, those forms that involve crime and violence — and thus helped magnify and sustain what would have been a crime increase in any event.” [15]

To the extent that this “youth culture” was advantaged by the baby boom, the Great Crime Wave could be counted as a secondary effect of age shift. That hardly lets liberalism off the hook, however. In the ’60s and ’70s, the “youth culture” became liberalism; the struggle since then has been to get shed of it.

'Crime and the Culture War' is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, available at Amazon.com or directly from Fielding Press. Parts of it first appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press and are reprinted by permission. Other parts first appeared in the Sept. 16, 1983, issue of National Review.


[1 William Genovese was wounded on March 13, 1967, three years to the day after his sister’s slaying. That same year, Winston Moseley’s death sentence was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals. Later, in response to the Attica prison riot, the state of New York offered its prison inmates the opportunity to receive a college education; Moseley obtained a degree in sociology. In 1977, he wrote a New York Times op-ed piece arguing that he was rehabilitated and had become an asset to society. So far, the parole board does not agree.     ——— “Silent Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Murder,” Cynthia Crompton, producer, “History’s Mysteries,” The History Channel, 1999. Published works cited in the program include Martin Gansberg, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police,” The New York Times, March 27, 1964, p. 1; and A.M. Rosenthal, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. (The “37” in the NYT headline reflects the fact that one of the 38 witnesses did call the cops — after it was too late to do any good. The attack on Miss Genovese began at 3:20 a.m.; the call was made at 3:50. Police were on the scene two minutes later. Gansberg writes that the witness “explained that he had called the police after much deliberation,” first phoning a friend for advice and then even trying to persuade someone else to make the call for him. It was this witness who uttered the infamous words, “I didn’t want to get involved.”)

In January 2002, as Moseley was going before the parole board for the 10th time, New York Newsday writer Calvin Lawrence Jr. commented: “Whether he has sufficiently paid his dues is a matter for the board to decide. But in this post-Sept. 11 environment, I’m struck by a pointed sense of civic duty among New Yorkers who’ve learned what it means to respond to neighbors in crisis — even at their own peril. Two months after the terrorist attack, for instance, a good Samaritan chased down a man suspected of pushing a woman into the path of a subway train entering Grand Central Terminal. That’s no aberration these days, when it’s hard to imagine one person, let alone 38, standing silently by.”     ——— “Asides,” Newsday, Jan. 20, 2002, B3. [back]

[2]  Rosenthal wrote in response to a column in which feminist leader Gloria Steinem had argued that what Clinton was accused of did not constitute sexual harassment. To take the particulars of Paula Jones’ complaint, that would mean that if a male boss takes his female subordinate aside, drops trousers and says “just kiss it” and the woman says “no,” and the man does not further push himself on her (though he does, however, sternly warn her against complaining about it to anyone), uninvited genital exposure on the job is not sexual harassment. Such are the absurdities into which many leftists drove themselves during the Clinton scandals.     ———Rosenthal, “Murdered in the Park,” The New York Times, March 27, 1998, p. A19; Stuart Taylor Jr., “Her Case Against Clinton,” The American Lawyer, November 1996, pp. 56-69. [back]

[3]  Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports. [back]

[4]  Criminologist James Q. Wilson’s observation to that effect was cited by George F. Will in 1992, with the comment that whereas “some people say crime today is not as bad as the media make it seem, … by some measures it is worse than it seems.” And in 2002, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst calculated, in AP’s words, that “without medical advances, 45,00 to 70,000 homicides would have been recorded annually nationwide” — more than three times what we’ve suffered with those advances.     ———Will, “Stressed Out in America,” The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 1992, p. A27; “Massachusetts researchers cite medical care advances in decline in murder rate,” Associated Press dispatch, Aug. 11, 2002. [back]

[5]  “Serious Crime Declines for Fourth Straight Year,” AP dispatch, May 5, 1996. [back]

[6]  If all the crime in the country were being committed by members of the 18-24 age group, then a 50 percent increase in that population segment would produce, by itself, a 50 percent increase in crime. Since people in the 18-24 age group accounted for only 18 percent of arrests in 1960, and only 35 percent of arrests in 1980 (the year its share of the population peaked at 13.3 percent), the expected increase due solely to age shift would be considerably less — by this calculation, only 10 percent. The crime wave that actually occurred topped out with a 100 percent increase for murder, more than a 200 percent increase for major property crimes, more than a 300 percent increase for robbery and forcible rape, and more than a 400 percent increase for aggravated assault.

                   Percent of population                  Percent of arrests        

                       Age    1960   1980                   Age       1960    1980       

                     < 17     35.7    28.1                    < 17       14        22       

                   18-24      8.9     13.3                   18-24      18        35      

                   25-44     26.1    27.7                  25-44       43        34      

                   45 +      29.2    30.9                  45 +         25         9      


 Percentage of arrests in 1960 times percentage of population in 1980 divided by percentage of population in 1960     

                                           < 17           14  x  28.1 / 35.7      =    11.0         

                                         18-24           18  x  13.3 /   8.9      =    26.9         

                                         25-44           43  x  27.7 / 26.1      =    45.6        

                                          45 +           25  x  30.9 / 29.2      =    26.5 


Expected crime rate in 1980 as a percentage of 1960 rate:          110.0         

   ———Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, pp. 27, 58, 170; FBI, Crime in the United States 1974 (Uniform Crime Reports), p. 55; 1981, p. 39. [back]

[7]  The Editors of Time-Life Books, This Fabulous Century, v. IV, pp. 108-113. [back]

[8]  Fred Graham, “A Contemporary History of American Crime,” The History of Violence in America, pp. 485-493, 501; Robert M. Cipes, The Crime War, pp. xi-xiv; James Q. Wilson, “Crime and the Liberal Audience,” Commentary, January 1971; Jerry Wilson, Police Report, pp. 31-33. [back] 

[9]  FBI, Uniform Crime Reports; William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream, pp. 1182, 1225; “9 Murdered in California Town,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nov. 8, 1973, p. A-12; Janet L. Barkas, Victims, pp. xv., 61; “Couple, Recently Robbed, Take Their Own Lives, Citing Fear,” The New York Times, Oct. 7, 1976, p. A-51; Leslie Maitland, “Elderly South Bronx Couple Disregarded Advice to Move,” The New York Times, Oct. 8, 1976, p. D-15. [back]

[10]  “Crime, the Courts, and the Old Nixon,” The New Republic, June 15, 1968, pp. 8-11. [back]

[11]  Menninger, The Crime of Punishment, pp. 5, 9, published in 1968 and quoted by William Tucker in Vigilante: The Backlash Against Crime in America, pp. 54-60.

The English historian Paul Johnson took notice of advanced thinkers like Menninger in his aptly named 1977 polemic, Enemies of Society: “Sociologists of crime feel no moral obligation to identify themselves with the law, even in principle; on the contrary, they argue that their professional obligation may be to frustrate the law. … Thus the criminologist joins the ‘deviant’ in trying to destroy/change society. … The distinction between crime and legality is totally abolished and the criminal is presented as the normal member of society — with the added implication that the law-abiding are the real deviants.”     ———pp. 203-204.

Tucker writes that Menninger “was only one of thousands of social scientists in the 1960s who decided that he had a ‘better idea’ for dealing with criminals. … Together they pulled off an enormous revolution in the American criminal justice system in a very short time. Their essential reform was to ‘deprisonize’ the justice system. … By 1975, the average murderer in Massachusetts was spending two-and-a-half years in jail. California alone had six times as many robbers as England, yet there were more people in jail for robbery in England than in California.” And he cited an observation made by criminologist James Q. Wilson: “During the 1960s, while crime rates were soaring, there was no significant increase in the amount of prison space, and there was an actual decline in the number of prisoners, state and federal, from about 213,000 in 1960 to 196,000 in 1970. In New York State the chances of the perpetrator of a given crime going to prison fell during this period by a factor of six.”     ———Vigilante, loc. cit..; Wilson, Thinking About Crime, p. 194. [back]

[12]  Ivins, “Death penalty won’t keep guns out of nuts’ hands,” Creators Syndicate column in Beaumont Enterprise, Dec. 21, 1993, p. 7B; Ivins, “Mistrust is worse than crime,” Creators Syndicate column in Beaumont Enterprise, April 1, 1993, p. 9B. [back]

[13]  “Crime and American Culture,” The Public Interest, Winter 1983, p. 36. Wilson added: “Though it seems clear that a rising proportion of young males in the population — such as resulted from the baby boom of the 1950s — will lead to an increase in crime, it is not at all clear why the age-specific crime rate (that is, the number of crimes committed by young males of a given age) has also increased — so much so that a delinquent boy born in Philadelphia in 1958 was five times more likely to commit a robbery than one born in that city in 1945.”     ———pp. 22-23. [back]

[14]  David Ho, “Drop in crime stats may have come to an end,” Associated Press report in San Antonio Express-News, Dec. 19, 2000, p. 10A. [back]

[15]   Wilson, “Crime and American Culture,” pp. 32-38. [back]

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Copyright © 2006 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/10/11 20:58:30 -0500.