Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Nightmare on Elm Street: The real killers beneath California's safe suburban streets

By Jonathan Simon

San Bruno fire

In the 1970s Californian's were terrified by what seemed like an endless array of serial killers busy breaking into their homes, or snatching their loved ones of streets. There was the Zodiac Killer, the Hillside Strangler, and the Trial Side Killer, the Sacramento Vampire, and no less than three Freeway Killers. All told more than 160 victims were killed by some 15 distinct serial killers (either acting alone or with accomplices). While the trend peaked in the 1980s, and like homicides generally has gone way down, the legacy of those "fear years" is California's massive prison population (more than 6x its levels in the 1970s) and chronically overcrowded prisons which threaten to bankrupt the state. Despite the crippling financial costs and the ongoing human rights crisis, any politician that seeks to release prisoners, or question the need to send so many away for so long, runs into a wall of fear that sees in any early release or effort to solve problems in the community another potential serial killer on the streets.

I believe this fear is anchored in the unquiet memories of the 1970s and 1980s. Those memories are unquiet largely because they continue to be fed by a media industry that has has been enriched by serial killer fantasies for decades, and a political class that is itself addicted to governing through the fear of strangers produced by these "memories" (and easily transferred to immigrants, Muslims, or anyone else that seems different). That "stranger danger" complex was facilitated by another fact of California in the 1970s. Decades of efforts to build up the state's infrastructures had made California a gleaming technical powerhouse in the late 1970s when I moved there to go to college. With solid infrastructure and multiple engines of economic growth, Californians could afford to indulge in that most ancient and entertaining fear of the "bogey man." No more.

San Bruno fire
San Bruno fire

The terrible fire ball that ripped through the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno on Thursday night this past week, killing at least four, and totally destroying dozens of nice suburban homes, was another reminder that California and all of America is today stalked by infrastructure failure. According to Adam Nogourney and Malia Wollan's reporting in the NYTimes, the gas pipes that exploded Thursday were probably installed in 1948. In much of the rest of nation, basic water and energy piping was laid in the early 20th or even late 19th century. After decades of pretending we were a technological leader, America is waking up to the fact that our decaying infrastructures are a danger to economic growth, and increasingly, to our lives. The failed levees of New Orleans, the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis a couple of years ago, similar pipe explosions in New York, these are the serial killers of the 21st century.

But Hollywood is unlikely to embrace infrastructure danger, not while they can keep trotting out versions of the Charles Manson to scare us. Nor is the current political generation, which learned to wield power by invoking fear of other people, likely to mobilize the population behind the need to redirect our public and private spending toward renewing our infrastructure.

That is why President Obama's sporadic efforts to get the country focused on infrastructure investment are so important and so insufficient. His call in his speeches last week for an infrastructure bank to fund a new generation of public and private investment may have made good policy wonk sense, but it didn't grab Americans by their fear. He also missed his chance in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago to stand in front of the levees that failed in 2005 and tell Americans, these are the killers that could take your children away next week, next month, or next year. He should fly to San Bruno, and along with Governor Schwarzenegger — who has tried as well to raise the alarm about infrastructure during his terms in office — perhaps made up for the occasion in his old Terminator make-up, to stand in front of those obliterated houses and tell Americans that the nightmare of the future is here today.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.