Random Murders and the Corrosive Damage of Stranger Violence

The revelation that a young male who entered Germany illegally (he claims to be 17 and an Afghan citizen, but Germany doesn't check, believe it or not) in 2015 is the suspect in the random rape-murder of a 19-year-old medicine student in Freiburg, Germany is still echoing throughout the German press and German society. The broadsheets can't avoid reporting on this crime, but are obviously straining mightily to avoid drawing any implications from it. Meanwhile, the comment sections are on fire. There, you can read everything from reasoned critiques of Merkel's policies to sputtering xenophobic tirades.

The national broadsheets will soon stop covering the case, anxious as always to downplay crime by illegal immigrants. But this case, and others like it, will certainly increase Germans' fears about crime and security to levels even higher than they are now. The main reason is that so many of the new crimes committed by the hundreds of thousands of young males who entered in 2015 are stranger on stranger violence. How could they not be? Most of the new arrivals are still strangers to German society, and will be for years yet.

This introduction (pdf) to a criminology symposium gives a good introduction to the sinister force of stranger violence:

Stranger violence represents one of the most frightening forms of criminal victimization. Conklin and McIntyre have argued that the fear of crime is basically a fear of strangers. It is suggested that people fear the unknown person who commits an unpredictable and violent attack on a vulnerable and innocent citizen going about routine daily activities. The perceptions that the attacker is indiscriminate in his selection of the victim and that the victim can do little to avoid attack or protect himself also elicit fear in society. The urban dweller, in particular, confronts what Silberman refers to as a "startling paradox":

Life in metropolitan areas . . . involves a startling paradox: we fear strangers more than anything else, and yet we live our lives among strangers. Every time we take a walk, ride a subway or bus, shop in a supermarket or department store, enter an office building lobby or elevator, work in a factory or large office, or attend a ball game or the movies, we are surrounded by strangers. The potential for fear is as immense as it is unavoidable.

The fear of crime from strangers has important consequences for life in a civil society. People stay behind locked doors and travel by taxi or car rather than public transportation or on foot to avoid contact with strangers. When people go out, they travel in groups and avoid returning to their homes at a late hour. They stay away from cultural and educational events if traveling to a certain section of the city at night is required. Such avoidance behavior represents what economists refer to as "opportunity costs." When people stay home, they are not enjoying the educational and cultural advantages of their community. By restricting with whom they will interact, the general level of sociability decreases. Such responses not only undermine the trust essential for a civil society, but diminish the quality of life as well.

For years, Germany had relatively few stranger homicides or severe beatings. I'm sure those numbers are going to tick up thanks to the 2015 influx. And it doesn't really matter by how much. Even one spectacular random crime such as the Freiburg rape-murder has a massively disproportionate impact. To put it crudely, it does as much damage to general perceptions of public safety as a hundred murders between intimate partners, criminal accomplices, or acquaintances.

Will this increased perception of danger lead to new laws? Probably not. As Michael Tonry pointed out long ago, German criminal justice policy remains highly stable even in the face of rising crime rates. The reasons include:

  • A press landscape dominated by state media which sensationalizes crime less than private media.
  • A higher level of trust in 'experts' such as criminologists, sociologists, and lawyers, most of whom still endorse a therapeutic, rehabilitative approach to corrections.
  • Criminal laws are made at the national level, not the local level.
  • Lawyers and civil servants are powerful gatekeepers who prevent fluid, responsive changes in criminal-justice policy.

None of these deep structural/institutional factors will change anytime soon. So we will have a situation in which the public feels increasingly exposed and insecure because of rising stranger violence, but has no way of actually changing policy in response to it.

The anxiety and anger won't disappear, it will instead run into other channels:

  • increasing support for extreme parties
  • mainstream parties experimenting with pungent anti-crime rhetoric to try to slow their decline
  • citizen watch groups and patrols
  • even more explicit "stranger danger" lessons in schools
  • revenge attacks on members of ethnic groups perceived as contributing to the problem
  • more traffic to tabloids and Internet press outlets which offer uncensored coverage of immigrant crime
  • taboo-breaking pop-culture themes that legitimize a desire for revenge against predators and a return to safety and order (think "Dirty Harry" or "Death Wish").

As I've said before, I lived through this before, in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these trends can be seen right now in Germany, and they're only going to increase. They won't be driven by overall crime rates (which may well remain stable as Germany's aging population counterbalances the new crimes committed by young male migrants), they'll be driven by an increase in stranger-on-stranger violent crime.

6 thoughts on “Random Murders and the Corrosive Damage of Stranger Violence

  1. You write “So we will have a situation in which the public feels increasingly exposed and insecure because of rising stranger violence, but has no way of actually changing policy in response to it.

    But would a change in policy, even a very drastic one, actually lead to “the public” feeling less exposed and more secure? I am not sure if there is any evidence that tougher crimes lead to less crime, but i would think that especially the violent crimes such as rape and murder are acts of impulse, not rational choices. While the former could be influenced by tougher laws, the latter most certainly would not.

    To the contrary, stricter laws with higher sentences could also lead to a situation where crime, even stranger-to-stranger crime, is not being affected by these laws at all, which would lead to an even bigger insecurity and fear within “the public”.

    So another way to deal with this could be more and better information to the general public

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  2. That’s the insidious thing about random stranger violence: there is no real policy answer. It sends the message that the state cannot protect you. No matter how many more cops there are, no matter how harsh the penalties, nobody can guarantee you’ll make it through the park unmolested this time.

    Public information is also not very helpful, since the only thing the authorities can really do is provide safety tips, which just deepens the fear.

    This is why you want to make sure your society keeps low levels of random stranger violence, if it’s lucky enough to be in that condition. Importing hundreds of thousands of completely unknown random illiterate young males from the MENA region is not a good way of keeping stranger violence low. The only solution now is to get them out of the country as fast as possible.

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