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What We're Afraid Of Now

A gaping, charred wound in the belly of a federal office. An aerial view of children fleeing a high school surrounded by police. Thanks to the images they produced, the two tragedies America recalls each April have had a lasting and complex impact on the way America feels about violence.

The April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing dented America's sense of immunity from terrorist attacks. It led Congress to change laws to make prosecuting terrorists and executing criminals easier. This May, the convicted bomber will be put to death in the first federal execution in decades.

The 13 deaths at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, led schools around the country to design security plans to help avoid "another Columbine," emboldened gun control advocates and increased criticism of violent television, movies and music.

Both events had important effects on the psyche. Prior to Oklahoma City, "Americans did not think very much of terrorism happening to them while they were minding their own business," said Donald R. Hamilton, deputy director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism.

Go In-Depth
Click on the following links for more on the bombing, the shooting and gun violence in this country:

The Bombing
A photo essay on the tragedy at the Murrah Building, plus a chronology of the attack and court cases.

Tragedy At Columbine
The shooting, the aftermath and the fear at schools nationwide.

Guns In America
Where school and workplace shootings have taken place.

And before Columbine, "We always lived with a hope and a belief that our schools were sacred," said Dianne Clements, president of the victims advocacy group Justice For All. "Of course Columbine slapped us in the face and said nothing is exempt from evil."

However, as the traces of the tragedies fade, the key question is whether the bombing ad the shooting accurately relect the sort of violence Americans should worry about.

"I think that while these are highly visible and horribly tragic events, they are not occurring at a greater rate than they might have occurred historically," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. "I think there is more focus on them because of the ability of mass media to transmit news more quickly."

The reality is that, since the explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah building, there have been no terrorist attacks on the United States. And while there have been dozens of school shootings, school violence is actually trending downward, along with crime in general, according to government reports.

Some crimes — like rape, murder and robbery — do hit the young more frequently than their elders. In 1998, according to the FBI, 63 percent of murder victims were younger than 35 and 11 were less than 18 years old.

However, a 1999 Department of Education report found that nonfatal crime in school dropped 20 percent and fewer students were carrying weapons to the classroom. An annual Gallup poll finds the number of students who feared for their safety at school slid from 24 percent in 1992 to 16 percent in 1999.

Yet the advocacy group Building Blocks for Youth found that 62 percent of respondents to one poll thought youth crime was rising, a trend the study blamed on skewed media coverage.

"Depictions of crime in the news are not reflective of the rate of crime generally, the proportion of crime which is violent, the proportion of crime committed by people of color, or the proportion of crime committed by youth," a recent study by the group found.

But John Head, who founded the gun control group SAFE Colorado just days after Columbine, says there's still too much bloodshed. He blames the entertainment industry for glorifying guns and parents for ignoring the violent music and movies their kids hear and see.

"What used to be settled when I was a kid by fistfights is now settled by guns," he said. "We have a long way to go before we get youth violence down to acceptable levels in this country."

The falloff in youth crime mirrors reductions in violence across the board. From 1994 to 1999, the last year for which full statistics are available, major crimes reported to the FBI fell 16 percent, with the rate of crimes per 100,000 people down 20 percent. Murders fell 27 percent, and the murder rate 30 percent, over that time.

But public perceptions and prison populations don't reflct lowered crime. Gallup polls during the '90s consistently showed most Americans felt crime was rising, even though it fell.

Crimes Of A Century
Other violent acts that gripped America's imagination:
  • Lady With An Axe
    The trial of Lizzie Borden for the brutal August 4, 1892, murders of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Mass., was a national sensation. She was acquitted. The case was never solved.
  • Sacco and Vanzetti
    Convicted in a 1920 murder and payroll robbery south of Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927 in a case tainted by anti-immigrant and "Red Scare" sentiment.
  • The Lindbergh Kidnapping
    The 20-month-old son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, taken March 1, 1932, was found dead, his body mutilated, in May. Bruno Hauptmann was eventually arrested and executed for the crime.
  • The Rosenberg Spy Case
    After discovering in 1949 that atomic secrets had been passed to the USSR, federal agents followed a trail of turncoats to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two New Yorkers with alleged ties to the Communist party. The couple was convicted in 1951 and executed in 1953.
  • The Clutter Killings
    The shocking home invasion and brutal murder of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their two teen-age children in small-town Holcomb, Kansas, was immortalized in the Truman Capote novel In Cold Blood.
  • Kennedy Assassination
    The Nov. 22, 1963, slaying of the president was followed by the televised murder of his alleged assassin two days later, a violent beginning to years of speculation on who killed JFK.
  • Manson Murders
    Followers of self-proclaimed Messiah Charles Mason committed nine murders in 1969. The most gruesome were the Aug. 9 slaying of five people at the home of actress Sharon Tate and, two days later, the murder of Leno and osemary LaBianca.
  • Son of Sam
    Also known as the ".44 Caliber Killer," David Berkowitz killed six people and injured seven others from 1975-1977. In letters to a newspaper columnist and police, he identified himself as "the 'Monster' — 'Beelzebub' — the chubby behemouth."
  • And during the last decade, even as crime shrank, America's prison population shot from 1.2 million to 1.9 million, making the U.S. rate of incarceration the highest in the world, according to the Sentencing Project. Total spending on the justice system is up at least 235 percent since 1982.

    Pasco believes the rising incarceration and falling crime rates are related. He believes one key to lower crime has been "Mandatory minimum penalties, which have put a lot of people who might have committed crimes in prison." But critics say putting more people in prison in the late '80s didn't decrease crime. And more than half of people in federal prison are drug offenders.

    Other factors that have changed the face of American violence include the economic boom, which has created opportunity for people who could have turned to crime. There are also demographic factors: the number of males aged 16-19 — an age group that commits a great number of crimes — is low in the current population.

    Clements points to the twin tragedies of April as reasons some crime has been prevented. Public buildings have tightened security since 1995, and schools have taken new precautions in the wake of Columbine. "Ironically," she says, "maybe these things contribute to a reduction in the crime rate."

    With the crime falling, some may question whether it makes sense to fear for another Columbine or another Oklahoma City.

    "I don’t think it's necessarily wrong for people to be concerned about crime. They should be, but they should not be unduly concerned," says Pasco, whose organization represents 230,000 police officers. Those who study terrorism have similar advice.

    "The chances that a person like Timothy McVeigh is going to blow you up with a fertilizer bomb are remote," says Hamilton. However, "it is such a catastrophic possibility that you have to try and deal with it."

    "Terrorism is not highly likely to happen to you personally but you ought to care about terrorism policy," he advises.

    Still, almost no one expects the crime rate to remain low forever, or for Columbine and Oklahoma City to be the last violent acts to shock the country.

    "In a way it's not surprising that this would happen in the U.S. because we do have a culture of violence," says Lester Kurtz, a sociology professor at the University of Texas. A Tufts University study found that in 1996, "two people in New Zealand, 15 in Japn, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany and 10,744 in the United States" died by gunshot.

    "We often think that if we have a serious problem that it has to be solved with violence," sayd Kurtz.

    And, many feel, Americans have also had a very narrow view of what constitutes violence. Clements recalls that domestic violence was ignored for decades. Ghandi said the worst form of violence is poverty, yet crime indexes don't measure that.

    And Americans' crime risk varies greatly depending on where they live, how much they earn and, especially, the color of their skin. A 1997 FBI report found that while white Americans face a one in 353 chance of being murdered, for black Americans the odds are one in 58.

    Plus, American violence isn't restricted to street crime, school shootings or the terrorist threats.

    So far this year, United States aircraft patrolling the southern no-fly zone in Iraq have dropped bombs eight times. Kurtz points out that, "It's sort of hard to tell kids not to shoot each other when that's what the president is doing."

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