There's no crime like the present

The lunatic fringe is supposed to be a faraway place.

But with gunmen assaulting the White House, a jobless plumber going berserk in a stolen tank in San Diego and a former soldier accused of blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City, some fear the "fringe" is migrating inward to the places where the rest of us live and work.

A string of high-profile attacks -- some bloody, others just bizarre -- is raising questions about the nation's state of mind.

Is an anxious, wayward America breeding more crazies than erlier? Has society lost the power to contain the lunacy that altways has lurked at its fringe!

Or is life just imitating life?

"There are fads in almost everything. including crime," says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at North- eastern University in Boston.

A few years back, Mr. Fox says, it was schoolyard snipings. Then came carjackings and workplace assaults. But he is wary of consigning the latest outbursts - which range from the Long Island Rail Road massacre to the Oklahoma City bombing -- to the category of crime fad.

"There are lots of marginal people out there for whom life is just not that exciting or fulfilling, who start to think this would be a neat idea," Mr. Fox says.

Such people find plenty of encouragement, crime watchers say.

"We've developed a culture of crime as entertainment and the criminal as a kind of celebrity," says Jamin Raskin, professor and associate dean of the American University Law School. "So this culture gives license to borderline personalities to go out and make themselves famous."

The newest candidate for "celebrity" is Fairfax County resident Leland William Modjeski, who authorities say is recovering from a bullet wound after scaling a White House fence Wednesday night and being shot in the arm by a Secret Service agent.

Mr. Modjeski, 36, may not have planned to live to see his name in print, authorities have speculated, since he carried an unloaded revolver over the fence. On Sept. 12, Frank Corder stole a small plane and crashed it onto the White House's South Lawn, killing himself. Six weeks later, Francisco Martin Duran pulled a semiautomatic rifle from his trench coat and fired at the White House.

Bullets pierced the building without hitting anybody. Duran was convicted on several charges, including attempted murder. In December, while he awaited trial, somebody else fired at the White House, possibly from a passing car.

But these were tiny infractions compared with what happened next.

The bomb blast that blew open the Alfred T. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 167, also demolished any lingering belief that sane, law-abiding people might be safe from people operating on rage.

The chief suspect in the bombing, Timothy McVeigh, has been depicted as a brooding, distrustful ex-soldier who blamed his government for the 1993 FBT assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, which ended in a fire that killed more than 80 people.

People argued bitterly over who was to blame. But some observers say the squabbling missed a larger point.

"I would not be one to portray this [violent activity] as completely extreme and divorced from the rest of the culture," Mr. Raskin says. "We have a very violent society and a very violent culture. You only have to turn on the television to see that."

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