WASHINGTON - Terrorised by a rash of car hijackings that culminated this week in the gruesome murder of a young mother in the Washington suburbs, America, the country of automobile worship, is suddenly afraid to drive, writes David Usborne.
Pamela Basu, 34, was taking her 22-month-old daughter to a nursery in a prosperous residential area north of the capital last Tuesday morning when she was forced from her BMW by two black assailants at a road junction. What followed appalled the nation and struck fear into those used to driving alone.
The baby, Selina, was tossed out on to the highway, still strapped in her child-seat, as the car sped away. She was unharmed. Her mother, however, became entangled in the driver's safety belt after she was pushed out and was dragged along the road for more than a mile as the car accelerated away.
A resident who saw the attack, committed in daylight in a built- up area, related that she had 'noticed something was dragging out the driver's side rear door. It looked in my mind like one of those dummies that they stuff up for Hallowe'en.'
Mrs Basu was killed while being dragged along. The driver, apparently noticing a bumping sound outside the car, tried after a while to dislodge her by side- swiping a fence. Alerted by witnesses, the police gave chase and later arrested both men, who now face trial for murder.
All across the country, police are reporting a dramatic escalation in the numbers of such violent 'car-jackings'. In the Basu case, the criminals were apparently unarmed, but that is the exception. More typically, drivers are forced at gunpoint to abandon the cars to the attackers.
Cities reporting the most car- jacking cases include Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston and Newark, west of New York. Detroit police report roughly 20 such hijackings a week. In Houston, 221 cars were stolen in this way in the first six months of this year.
'Nobody's really secure,' says Dave Borup, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. 'Whether you have an exotic car or not an exotic car, affluent or not affluent, you are at risk.' Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, added: 'This is the crime of the future. It is a crime to be committed on anonymous highways, where there are no eyes or ears.'
Part of the explanation for the sudden surge in car-jacking is the improved security on expensive cars that makes breaking into them when they are parked more difficult than before. The attraction of a car that is already running, with the keys in the ignition has become overwhelming for some.
In an article, 'Car-jackings plague US' (12 September 1992), we referred to an attack on a young mother in Washington by two black assailants. It is not our practice to refer to a person's colour unless this is directly relevant to the story and the article should have explained that this was an unusual and isolated incident, and one of the first instances of crime in black areas having spilled over into white areas. The absence of this explanation is regretted.