Monsters Were Due on Maple Street

What's the lack of blackout-induced crime tell us about America?


Remember the old Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," ranked as one of the series' best by those who care about such matters? A minor classic on Cold War hysteria, it takes place on a typical street in a typical American town, where the power goes out for no apparent reason. Within hours, the neighbors are at each other's throats, accusing one another of treachery and worse. As the lights intermittently come back on and the day turns to night, rioting and shooting occur and the whole place goes to hell in a hand basket. Because it's The Twilight Zone, with its mandatory groan-inducing denouement, we learn at the close of the show that two big-headed aliens, an advance team for a planned invasion of the planet, have been playing the Maple Streeters for suckers. What they did here, they'll soon do all over the country.

By all rights, yesterday's record-setting blackout that left some 50 million without electricity should have been a Maple Street moment, at least in terms of rioting and shooting, if not necessarily politically motivated hysteria. (Everyone seemed to believe early reports discounting terrorism as a cause of the energy drain.) Instead, it simply became the big story of the coming weekend, crowding out coverage of the capture a senior al Qaeda operative who was apparently recruiting new suicide pilots, news that an Alabama judge may go to jail for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse, and a growing recognition that the Fox News Channel now legally owns the expression "fair and balanced."

Indeed, the most interesting blackout-related story is the one that never happened. The sort of pandemonium, hysteria, looting, crime, and chaos that typically greets even minor football victories as well as catastrophic utility failures simply didn't materialize. This was true even in New York City, where such antisocial behavior was once seen as part of the city's very essence. Indeed, the iconic '70s Manhattan-based sitcom The Odd Couple even featured a Boy Scout punching one of the characters, among other signs of defining Big Apple vitriol. The 1981 cult classic Escape from New York was titled that way for a reason—one that no longer makes sense.

This Associated Press headline pretty much sums it up: One Dead, One Hurt in New York Blackout. The death toll in the country's biggest city consisted of a 40-year-old man who had a heart attack during a fire. A fireman was also seriously injured as some 60 "serious" fires were attended to during the night, which saw double the normal volume of emergency calls. "Things on balance, almost 100 percent, did work," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the press. "New Yorkers showed that the city that burned in the 1970s when facing similar circumstances is now a very different place."

That's putting it mildly. Compare this blackout to the last great power failure in Gotham, which ushered in what then-Mayor Abe Beame understatedly referred to as a "Night of Terror". The total damage for the crime, arson, and theft associated with the '77 blackout is generally pegged at around $150 million and the mayhem that ensued (including looting and widespread muggings in broad daylight) is considered on a par or worse with what followed in the wake of the late-'60s race riots there. Yet this time around, fewer people (20) were arrested for looting than new cars were stolen in 1977 from a single Bronx Pontiac dealership (50). (That thieves would stoop to stealing Pontiacs is a sign of how crazy the times actually were.)

"New Yorkers have a lot to be proud of this morning," says Mayor Bloomberg, working hard to restore the smugness and complacency that many non-New Yorkers find contemptible about the place that was unironically advertised as "Fun City" during its most crime-ridden days. Some things, after all, are easier to bring back on line than electricity (and Bloomberg is not alone in his self-congratulation). But he's right, and not just about New York.

It's hard to know all the reasons for the different responses to the '77 and '03 blackouts (one of the great parlor games in New York after the '77 blackout was figuring out why people had acted so much worse than they did during the great '65 blackout). But one of the reasons has to be the far greater communications network that exist today. Information technology is one of the great antidotes to panic and hysteria. The day after the lights went out, at least those of us lucky enough to have the juice to run our Ionic Breeze air purifiers, iron lungs, and computers can relax and read all about every aspect of the blackout, including where it might have started (Ohio, the state that delusionally dubs itself "the Heart of It All," is the leading candidate as of this writing); why it happened (we may be "a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid"); and whether's it really all Canada's fault (probably not, but that's no reason not to blame the Great White North); and how to fix it (deregulate the industry and build more power plants, two things that will be slow in coming for all sorts of reasons). In other words, even a major disruption is easier to deal with, if not necessarily easier to understand and solve for good.