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Linda Flanagan

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Appreciating James Q. Wilson

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 1:23 pm

James Q. Wilson died early Friday morning at a hospital in Boston. The public policy intellectual who published a staggering number of books and articles on all manner of issues, including crime, politics, character and marriage, was 80.

Wilson was not a household name, but in the scholarly world he was a rock star. The first of his 17 books was published 52 years ago, and the 12th edition of his classic text on public policy, American Government, came out in 2010. He advised Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. He also taught government and public policy at Harvard, UCLA, Pepperdine, and Boston College.

His impact made its way to the local level. Last week, my town paper included a long letter from a resident who was protesting the city's plan to distribute surveys in search of advice on the community. The writer suggested that it's pretty obvious what needs improvement, including better public safety. What we need, he went on -- and I'm paraphrasing -- is to address the small violations, which when left unaddressed contribute to an atmosphere of lawlessness. It would make sense for our policy makers to adhere to James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory of policing, he wrote.

Powerful ideas shape events, and Wilson's brainstorm altered the style of policing in American and European cities. Who knows how many individuals he saved from mugging or murder by virtue of this enduring principle of public safety? He probably received few letters of gratitude from those who were never attacked, but he changed the arc of their lives nonetheless.

This is Wilson's legacy. His decades-old idea is so ingrained in how we think about public safety that a good citizen in Summit, NJ, nearly 30 years after the theory was introduced in the Atlantic Monthly, alludes to it in the town paper. Wilson's original and public-spirited ideas continue to resonate, even today, among people he never knew or met.

A few years ago, a close friend introduced me to Wilson's daughter Annie. For months, I talked about meeting James Q. Wilson's daughter, and found myself asking about her in relation to her famous father. Since then, Annie has found her own place in my heart, and made plain her own distinctive identity. She has a dazzling mind and a soft soul, as well as a killer wit that must be useful to her as head of the School Committee in a cash-challenged town. Annie is the flesh and blood reminder that a person's legacy, even someone with the resume of James Q. Wilson, goes well beyond his professional achievements.

In The Moral Sense, Wilson thanked his wife Roberta for informing the thinking that went into the book. "She taught me by example what the moral sense is," he wrote. That example lives on in their children, and for the rest of us who admired his work. It may be too late to say so, but we thank you.