Friday, July 25, 2014

Dear India, Your Windows Are Broken

New York City in the early 90s was rife with crime.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, his police commissioner, famously used the "Broken Window" theory of criminology to make the city safe. Today, New York is the safest large city in America.

There is much to learn for India from the Broken Window idea.


The idea is simple. Small crimes beget big crimes.

Broken windows in a neighborhood show a couple things. There is likely vandalism going on and that neither the residents nor the police care very much.

These windows are an invitation to other criminals. More homes are vandalized and more windows are broken. Drug dealers and gangs move in. Abandoned buildings become their den.

Violence follows. People walk around fearful. Boys are bullied in the street and girls assaulted in hallways. Stores are routinely robbed and visitors viciously mugged.

Murders happen.

The neighborhood becomes disreputable. No one wants to buy homes here or set up businesses. Restaurants flee, grocers arm themselves, taxis no longer want to take anyone here.

This is how neighborhoods die. Blight and chaos is what a solitary broken window leads to.


You want to keep neighborhoods safe? You must fix every broken window.

This was the small idea with big consequences.

Crime was tracked and statistically analyzed, neighborhood by neighborhood. No crime was too small to be tracked. Every broken window was taken seriously.

Community policing began. Forgive the mixed metaphor but police officers from the community knew exactly how to nip the broken window in the bud. They were no longer chasing headline crimes - they were rewarded for cleaning out the smallest crime in their neighborhood.

Safe and clean neighborhoods became attractive to young families and small businesses. The flight to the suburbs reversed. The local economy strengthened from small business investments.

Criminals were no longer welcome. They had no place to hide.

Murders fell. Sexual assaults fell. Robberies fell. Muggings fell.

The city became safe and remains so to this day.


Why am I saying all this?

There is a lot to learn from this experience for Indian Police. But that's a discussion for another day.

I want to draw a parallel to bigotry.

When a society condones small acts of racism or communal hate or gender bias, it sows the seeds for lynchings and riots and rapes.

When a minister mistreats an immigrant, or an MP questions patriotism of an athlete, or when a girl is snubbed in small ways within her family, the broken window cycle begins.

Too many of us dismiss these incidents as small embarrassments not worthy of our attention.

If experience is any guide, this is precisely the wrong response.

When a bigot can get away with small hatred, he is not content with it. Next time he will try to see what more he can get away with. Others of like-minded perspective are encouraged by the non-response to the first instance of brazen bigotry. Before you know it, you have more and more bigots pushing their luck farther and farther. Words become sharper, more hurtful, then - eventually - they stop being just words. Blood ends up getting spilled.

The only way to keep a society from becoming a chauvinistic, identity-riven, churn of hatred is to call out the small transgressions and make examples of them all. This not only discourages the original perp, it deters others from trying the same or worse, and - crucially - it creates a societal norm of not tolerating bigotry.

This is the lesson of the broken window theory.

In a time where bigoted incidents are fast becoming an epidemic, nothing can be more important.


Rudy Giuliani went on to lead his great city through the horror of 9/11.

It is a matter of singular pride that the city did not erupt into frenzied violence targeting Arabs, Muslims, brown-skinned people, immigrants, anyone. The mayor told his city to stand together and support each other. And the city did exactly that.

This was probably because we liked what our city had become and did not want to lose it. We also had a leader who did not want either criminal violence or bigotry tormenting his people.

That's civic pride and applies to neighborhood safety as much as to comfort with diversity. And that's leadership.

Something  I think India - whose windows are sadly very broken - has a lot to learn from.