Essays, Analyses and Meditations

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Crime and State

  • Donald Black in "Crime as Social Control" (1983) introduced the idea that the border between crime and noncrime is blurred: the definition of "justice" depends on whether you are the law enforcer or the criminal.
  • Most crimes are not committed by "professionals" but rather by "ordinary" people (for the record, mostly young males) who feel that they are actually administering "justice" of some sort
  • It is illegal to kill your wife and your wife's lover, but the cheated husband might not feel that way: he might feel that he has just served justice by killing both. It is illegal to kill your husband, but the wife might feel that it is "justice" to get rid of a husband whom she hates and who stands in the way of her happiness. And the lover might simply be someone who honestly loves that woman and feels that he is helping rectify a wrong by killing her husband.
  • Even "professional" criminals don't necessarily perceive what they do as a crime: it is just her/his job, and sometimes a dangerous one, and sometimes the only option they have to make a living.
  • The activities who are illegal according to the state are sometimes not viewed as amoral by those who practice them (nor by us anymore: cigarette contraband or alcohol consumption or abortion are not viewed as amoral by most of us but they were considered crimes in several states at different times).
  • The state, clearly, will not defend those who engage in illegal activities (the "criminals"), and therefore the criminals have to defend themselves and take "justice" (what they perceive as justice) into their hands.
  • In many areas a lot of crime is actually committed by criminals on criminals to set scores or enforce rules.
  • It is not completely true that the Mafia, gangs, druglords and so forth are "criminals". Within their world there are ethical rules and a member can be punished for breaking them. It is just that they don't perceive the state laws as the ultimate laws. They perceive those state rules as we perceive weekend rain or heavy traffic: an annoyance that makes our life worse and that we have to cope with.
  • Criminals learn from the state how to administer "justice". Organized crime frequently simulates state structures. Even when it is not organized, crime has its own code of conduct, and criminals find it perfectly acceptable that there is violent punishment for breaking the "law" (not the state's law but whatever moral code is in place in their world). Criminals learn from the state that severe punishment is legitimate.
  • And viceversa: many state laws are viewed as "criminal" by some of the state's citizens. For example, in countries like Italy many resent taxation as unfair, and candidly cheat the tax revenue service.
  • My favorite example of legalized "robbery" takes place at the airport, where security officers confiscate your soft drinks but then, at the gate, you can buy the same soft drinks (for 10 times the ordinary price): couldn't they simply trade our soft drink at the security check for an identical soft drink at the gate?
  • At the beginning of the Great Recession in the USA thousands of families lost their homes while their government was using their tax money (700 billion dollars of it) to rescue the big banks from bankruptcy. Had someone robbed one of those big banks and thrown the money at the families losing their homes, the bank robber would have been sentenced to life in prison but most of us would have hailed him as a saint and a hero.
  • "Pirates" who share music or videos on peer-to-peer networks are considered criminal by the state even when they legally purchased those items, but their peers view them as generous and heroic.
  • The vast majority of "Don't Do" signs in democratic countries come with no explanation, and often sound arbitrary and stupid. In fact, many of them are tacitly ignored by law enforcers themselves (for example, the ridiculously low speed limits in California).
  • Justice itself is sometimes perceived as injustice by ordinary people. For example, famous trials ended with the acquittal of a celebrity who had probably committed the heinous crime for which he or she was tried, when an ordinary person would have probably been convicted by the same evidence and the same jury.
  • A woman who sells her vagina for a night (a short-term deal) commits a crime (prostitution) whereas a woman who sells her vagina for a rich husband and his nice mansion (a long-term deal) is a respectable woman. Even a woman who sells her vagina for a fancy dinner (another short-term deal) is doing something perfectly legal in all countries of the world.
  • History has proven that many "illegal" activities have later become perfectly legal, from heresy (for which one used to be burned at the stake) to alcohol (forbidden during the Prohibition). Today's drug smugglers could be tomorrow's neighborhood store owners.
  • By the same token, many crimes are not viewed as such by the neighbors of the criminal. Those crimes are tacitly accepted by a sizeable minority if not by the majority.
  • Many crimes would not be committed if they were not based on beliefs that are implicitly shared by the whole community.
  • The Mafia was a good example of a criminal organization that was tolerated, respected and even admired by ordinary people. In fact, it would not have survived without that passive acquiescence.
  • As Tacitus worded it: "A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all".
  • This is also true in international affairs. Terrorism is a crime for the established regime but not for those who despise the regime. One man's terrorist can be another man's hero. The men who started the independence war against Britain and founded the USA were considered terrorists by the (British) government that ruled over their lands at the time. Garibaldi, the hero who liberated and united Italy, was viewed as a terrorist by the Spaniards and French.
  • We often resort to a tautological argument: we call "terrorists" those who lose (and then we "prove" that terrorism always loses). Those who win are not terrorists but become the founding fathers of new nations. They won but they are not "terrorists" anymore: terrorists never win, the winners are revolutionaries, freedom fighters, etc (after the fact).
  • States often score the most dramatic drops in crime when they simply legalize (de jure or de facto) illegal activities.
  • Viceversa, one can argue that high crime rates are caused by the state enforcing laws that are not perceived as legitimate by the people: when in a given neighborhood a certain kind of crime is frequently committed, it probably means that the people who live there don't perceive it as a crime.