Letter From Washington, D.C.
CAN GOOD KARMA KEEP A LID ON CRIME?
Bill Clinton hasn't been seen levitating any Big Macs lately. George Mitchell and Bob Dole aren't about to give up the budget battle to ponder the mysteries of the collective consciousness. And the murder and mayhem on Washington's streets continue unabated. But none of this has stopped thousands of visitors from the Age of Aquarius from claiming they've brought good karma to Washington.
Four thousand practitioners of transcendental meditation (TM) have descended on the banks of the Potomac since early June for a two-month experiment. One goal is to pit the TMers' good vibes against the raw violence that has given Washington the highest murder rate in the nation. By meditating together and radiating rose-colored thoughts, the TMers say they can also help the federal government to make better decisions. "There has to be some mechanism to reduce the negative trends in society," says James Bedinger, 48, a meditator from Iowa. "This is a key to happiness."
As far-out as the goals of the out-of-town TMers are, they pale next to the mission of a TM group called Citizens For a Crime Free D.C. The group launched a lobbying campaign targeting community safety meetings and now hopes District of Columbia officials will put their meditative services under a five-year, $21 million contract. And that, they hope, will pave the way for deals to calm the troubled cores of as many as 60 other cities.
The mass meditation is based on a theory called field phenomenon: Just as radio waves are created by gyrating electrons in a field, TMers say, a collective consciousness can create its own "field." Meditators claim that they can tap into the field and transmit calm, lowering the level of stress and the number of violent crimes in the community.
The best evidence that there may be something to all this is that the groups haven't been laughed out of City Hall. "We don't rule out anything that can reduce the violent crime in this city," says Unnia Pettus, a spokeswoman for Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. The Washington experiment also is being monitored by the National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine and the Institute of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Maryland.
COSMIC CASH. The thousands who have flocked to Washington represent the most devoted members of the TM movement, a nonreligious regimen in which practitioners focus on a secret mantra for 20 minutes twice a day. While TM hasn't made many headlines since the psychedelic Sixties, when a visit from the Beatles put Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the map, an estimated 2 million Americans practice meditation, and the number worldwide may be twice that. The World Plan Executive Council-U.S., which teaches the seven steps to TM at 200 centers around the country, took in $9 million in revenues in 1992, and Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, has 1,500 students and an $18 million annual budget.
For its Washington meditation-athon, the TM movement lured practitioners from around the U.S. and 35 countries to local college campuses, including Catholic University and Gallaudet University, and to several other points around town, such as Waterside Mall and the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Many paid their own way and helped foot the $4.2 million tab. They meditate in shifts for six hours a day and devote their off hours to enlightening city officials about a cosmic approach to public policy.
After just four weeks in town, TM "scientists" boast that results are already evident. The MIU's Institute of Science, Technology & Public Policy (ISTPP) reports that violent crime dropped 23.6% in the capital in June, when only a portion of the meditators had arrived. District police officials confirm those figures.
NO PEEKING. The TMers dismiss the fact that there were 12 more homicides that month than a year earlier. They note that robberies dropped 34%, helping balance the scales. A TM newsletter also noted signs of increasing cooperation between the U.S. and other countries (Clinton's warm reception in Japan), more enlightened leadership in the federal government (the Federal Bureau of Investigation's move to back gun-control legislation), and signs of increasing strength in America, including a two-day stock-market runup in early July. The TMers believe that for July, when they achieved full strength, crime data will shift markedly. "June was a warm-up for us," says ISTPP Director John Hagelin modestly.
For the TMers, the project is a no-frills operation. There is heavy meditating--four hours in the morning and two in the afternoon--and not much else. At Gallaudet, participants meditate in the university's gymnasium, the windows of which are papered over to discourage curious onlookers. Meditators leave their shoes at the door, then sit cross-legged on thick foam-rubber mats that cover the floor. Between these sessions, the TMers relax by viewing videotapes of the Maharishi.
BULLETS STILL FLY. Not surprisingly, there are more than a few skeptics about the TMers' vision. "I can't see what meditation is going to do to touch the neediest populations," says Mary Jo Marvin, editor and writer for the National Crime Prevention Council, a nonprofit group based in D.C. "It doesn't address the issues of employment, lack of housing, and opportunity."
But Washington is so desperate that officials may be willing to try anything. "We've still got a long, hot summer in front of us," notes Officer Kenny Bryson. Indeed, just after the first meditators took to their mats, a murderous rampage broke out in the poorest section of the capital. Six people died in one day in a shoot-out among rival drug gangs. A few days later, a hilltop sniper wounded six children at a neighborhood swimming pool. That incident gave the entire city--and the TMers--something to reflect about for a lot more than 20 minutes. CHRISTINA DEL VALLE