The general lack of fences or any kind of barrier between suburban American homes is breathtaking. After living in Johannesburg, where gravity-defying tall walls with razor wire, broken glass, and electrical wiring atop are the rule, this aspect of life in American middle-class suburbia is an amazing revelation.
When fences do exist, they are usually more decorative than obstacles to passage. If present, their function is largely to delineate property lines. Fences may also provide privacy if one lives on a busy road or junction, but this is atypical. Indeed, neighbours can frown upon fences being erected. We know of someone who still resents previous neighbours of hers for putting up a fence to keep in their dogs. Instead of fences for this purpose, many use “invisible fences” that administer gentle shocks when their collar-wearing pets meander beyond a certain perimeter.
No burglar bars on windows are another joy of middle-class suburban life here. Those residing in American cities are more likely to have such essentials of Johannesburg city or suburban life (and most other South African population centers, for that matter). But such home protection measures are unusual in the middle-class suburbs here. Having an alarm system—and then using it on a regular basis—is not the suburban norm here either. I’m learning too that some do not even regularly lock up their homes when no one is present. Wow!
The gathering and releasing of crime statistics to the public is controversial in South Africa. Released figures reflect broad trends in crime categories, and are viewed skeptically as inaccurate and misleading. In contrast, the extent of detail in the notification of criminal activity here in Northern Virginia fascinates and stuns me. From one local newspaper, I learnt that a backpack was stolen from a parked car on our block last week, while two streets away, tools were taken from an open garage. The neighbourhood papers also reveal titillating details like an after-hours argument between an employer and employee at a nearby restaurant that resulted in police being summoned. Imagine details such as these, of seemingly petty incidents, making it into South African crime reports…
My personal favourite anecdote about the remarkable rarity of crime in our local area comes from the afternoon my son called from school to say that the school bus could not drive into the neighbourhood because of police activity. It turns out someone had seen a person throwing something into a basement window three houses over and had reported this to the police. Five or so police cars drove into the suburb, and a police helicopter hovered overhead, to apprehend this criminal. We learned later that the window breaker was in fact the homeowner who had locked himself out of his own home! I was totally impressed at the swift response and speechless at its overwhelming nature.
In a sad reflection of people’s desperation in the strained economy, bank robberies occur with unexpected frequency in the area. However, the robbers are typically apprehended quickly.
I should reiterate that what I’m describing here is very much an American middle-class suburban experience. Life in working-class suburbs and in cities themselves is profoundly different. The United States is hardly without crime, it has appallingly high gun ownership, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. But it also has incredible policing. U.S. police are very well trained, and they have remarkably sophisticated technology at their disposal. Life for traditional criminals must be very difficult indeed.
So middle-class Americans in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., are fortunate with low overall rates of criminal activity. Yet I find a general skittishness and nervousness about any possible untoward or unexpected occurrence. In my experience, Americans in this part of Northern Virginia show a great sensitivity and suspiciousness about irregular behaviour. I don’t know if this can be attributed to our proximity to Washington and general security consciousness in the post–9/11 world.
I had a revealing personal experience of this a while ago: My visit to a self-service petrol or “gas” station to fill the car with petrol went a little awry, and I came away having spilt a little petrol on my trousers. My next stop was the post office. I did not realize how much I smelled of petrol, so I blithely stepped into the post office and joined the queue. A hushed silence came upon the others in line, with everyone anxiously looking around them. Two women notably dashed out of the store. Another softly ventured, “Can you smell that? What is that?” Others murmured their concern. I then realized the smell emanating from the spill was the source of the problem and said loudly, “No, it’s me! I spilt some petrol on myself!” Nervous laughter broke out, with a couple of people reassuringly offering that they too had similar incidents with air bubbles when pumping petrol. Most curiously, the envelope I mailed that day never arrived at its destination. I’ve often wondered if it was sidelined because it too may have smelled suspicious.
The free-flowing nature of American society masks many issues. The lack of fences is part of the narrative of openness and the expectation of transparency in the American soul. Minimal fencing also shows the enormous respect Americans have for private property. The present tax structure strongly encourages Americans to buy homes, so those fortunate enough to own their homes greatly value them. And they very much respect others’ property too.