||I Have Seen the Enemy. . .
California's three-strikes bill was regularly linked to the 1993 kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, a twelve-year-old girl from Petaluma, California. There was regular nationwide media coverage as the Klaas drama unfolded, from the kidnapping through the police investigation and eventual apprehension of the suspect and recovery of the victim's body. Not a day passed without some reference to the case, new development or not, while Polly Klaas became a cause celebre throughout the state.
The Klaas murder was undeniably tragic, but it is equally undeniable that the attention paid it was a function of what Polly Klaas and the grieving Klaas family and their friends symbolized: the fact that violent crime had the power to touch affluent middle America. What made the Polly Klaas case the perfect vehicle for a media circus and for the eventual propaganda in support of three strikes was not only that it occurred in a middle-class suburb, but also that the perpetrator was a stranger, a shadowy outsider with a criminal past who lived on the literal and figurative margin of the quiet Petaluma community. The numerous cases in which suburban children are abused and killed by relatives and family friends receive the same scant media attention as ghetto and barrio crime victims: just enough to become a part of the sharply perceived but vaguely understood crime wave, but not enough for viewers to focus on the context or perpetrators of the crimes.
The most striking example in recent memory of the through-the-looking-glass quality of the "crime wave" is the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who confessed to drowning her two young children by strapping them into a car and guiding the vehicle into a lake. After the murder, Smith told police that the car and children had been "carjacked" by a black man, a story that police, the media, and the South Carolina community of Union readily accepted until the police discovered evidence that revealed Smith's own motives for the murder.
The reaction to Smith's confession was one of shock and disbelief: the media and the public were at loss to explain or understand the crimes.10 No such disbelief greeted Smith's claim that the children were abducted by a black man, yet this claim was remarkably less plausible than the truth—not only are most cases of child abuse, kidnapping, and murder committed by someone known to the victim, but even common intuition might lead one to wonder why a criminal would wish to increase the risk of detection and harsh punishment by abducting children from a woman who could not afford a ransom, rather than simply taking the car.11 The familiar police sketch of a menacing black man in a burglar's skull cap operated as a floating signifier, made credible by its location in the context of inner-city crime but now deployed by Smith in its disembodied form, a convenient patsy for a crime that is as much a feature of life in middle-class suburbia as drive-by shootings are a feature of inner-city slums.
An overlooked component of the Clinton administration's much-touted crime bill is a provision requiring convicted sex offenders to notify not only the local police, but the surrounding community as well whenever they move into a new community. This provision highlights the strategy of spatial control that these laws represent (the bill explicitly enables police to track the movements of released offenders, who have presumably served their time, and invites local residents to assume a policing or vigilante role in "controlling" or further punishing such individuals). Finally, the provision implicitly embraces the belief that criminals are naturally or inevitably predisposed to commit crimes—thus a convicted criminal who has served his or her time nevertheless represents a continuing threat. Although it may be argued that violent sexual crimes are a manifestation of a mental illness that is in fact innate and thus far incurable, the belief in the innate predisposition of particular individuals to criminality (and the corollary innate innocence of others) drives the new criminal law reforms regardless of the nature of the crime in question.
The Smith murders are not, despite what the media reports might imply, an isolated or anomalous example of suburban crime. One commentator describes the high desert suburbia of California's Antelope Valley as a region haunted by "the ghosts [of] baby and toddler girls, with names like Brianna Lee, Deedra, and Sabrina, names that echo a particular fantasy sensibility of their mothers. . . of a dream state, a place their mothers wish they could be.''12 In the Antelope Valley, a region akin to Thomas Pynchon's "San Narcisco," infants are murdered by their parents and guardians at a rate three times the norm for Los Angeles County and among the highest in the nation. These crimes feed the perception of imminent danger that has swept suburbia. This middle-class, overwhelmingly white, heavily Republican suburb, residents insist, is a good place to raise a family. It is a place of minimals, detached homes, church groups, methamphetamine-laced child abuse and murder, women who name their doomed children in homage to a fantasy of escape, and undoubtedly, Little League baseball.