The Jabbering Jaywalker

BUILDING A CIVIL SOCIETY

Christmas time in the city, as the carol puts it, means busy sidewalks filled with holiday cheer. But in New York City, the sidewalks are filled with pedestrians—and thanks to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, at least one of them entered the New Year with little to cheer about.

As any New Yorker can tell you, the word busy does not begin to describe midtown sidewalks around Christmas. The crowds spill onto the streets and create mammoth traffic jams.

To combat the problem, Mayor Giuliani ordered police to erect barriers along Fifth Avenue—barriers that kept pedestrians from using the crosswalks at some of New York’s busiest street corners.

New Yorkers chafed a bit at the inconvenience, but in the end most obeyed the law. Not so David Vidal, a 24-year-old intern working for the city’s Juvenile Justice Commissioner. A few days ago Vidal ignored a barrier and jaywalked across the street. He then added insult to injury by telling a reporter that “nonsensical laws mean nothing to me.” Violating the law didn’t bother him at all, he added, because “historically, I have not been a great follower of laws.”

 

ONCE YOU HAVE ORDER…
EVERYTHING ELSE SEEMS TO FOLLOW.

 

When the mayor’s office got wind of Vidal’s comments, Vidal was fired. Giuliani told the press that Vidal lost his job “because of the arrogance he showed about respect for the law.”

Critics were quick to complain. Columnist Mark Kriegel of the New York Daily News said the incident demonstrates an imperious mayor’s disrespect for First Amendment Rights. Others asked: What’s gotten into Giuliani, firing a young man for something as minor as jaywalking?

Personally, I think Giuliani has stumbled onto something crucial. The fact is, over the last few years crime has dropped dramatically in New York. People are scratching their heads trying to figure out why. Part of the answer is the decline in the age group most prone to violence. Another part is more police on the beat. But a big part of the answer is that the police began to enforce order even in small matters. They cleaned up graffiti, moved out panhandlers, and gave people a sense of belonging to their own neighborhoods.

What Giuliani has stumbled onto is a Christian principle: Once you have order in a community, everything else seems to follow. In other words, if people really believe that the community is well organized, that there’s a basic order to things, and that laws are being obeyed, then they begin to behave responsibly themselves—and all the social pathologies begin to abate.

This is what the biblical principle of shalom is all about: harmony among people living together in community. As Augustine wrote, true peace does not mean merely eliminating violence; it means establishing a just order—what he called the “tranquillity of order.” Russell Kirk spoke of order as the first and most foundational characteristic of society. He meant that without order you cannot have either justice or freedom. Maintaining a rightly ordered society is the most powerful antidote to chaos and crime.

That’s why Mayor Giuliani was absolutely right to fire that 24-year-old jaywalker who sneered at the law. The Case of the Jabbering Jaywalker is a reminder that obedience to the law—even in little things—prevents more than stalled traffic.

It keeps our entire way of life from grinding to a halt.


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