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The Story Of Crime

Everybody is guilty of something. This is a truism of the West. It goes all the way back to Cain and original sin and has been a central topic of discourse among members of society from the construction of the laws of ancient Rome, through the Inquisition, into the Jim Crow system of the South (and North), stopping to wallow in the culture of the Soviet Union, and going right to the rotted heart of the race laws of Nazi Germany.

In 2,000 years of Western civilization we have been guilty of heresy, perversion, theft, and murder; of fighting and refusing to fight; of loving, lusting after, and sometimes just looking. We have been guilty of speaking out and keeping silent, of walking, marching, and running away. We have been found culpable for following orders and for refusing to follow them, for adultery, child endangerment, sexual harassment, and elder abuse. We have also been guilty of our religion, national origin, skin color, sexual preference, gender, and, now and then, of the blood in our veins.

Guilt is the mainstay of who we are and how we are organized, and is, seemingly, our undeniable destiny, along with Death and Taxes. Our relationship with guilt is as old as the DNA that defines our species. But the nature of culpability changes with technology and technique. These changes affect the way we see the world and the way we seek to understand our predicament. True-crime stories, murder mysteries, up-to-the-minute online news reports, and (as always) rumor and innuendo grab our attention faster than any call for justice, human rights, or ceasefires.

This is because most of us see ourselves as powerless cogs in a greater machine; as potential victims of a society so large and insensitive that we, innocent bystanders in the crowd, might be caught at any time in the crossfire between the forces of so-called good and evil.

Because of this vulnerability we have questions that need to be answered to ensure our safety. One such question is, what would happen if -&? What if you saw a man shoot somebody? Should you tell the police? Would they protect you from murky vengeance? You saw a true-crime TV show once that profiled a man who identified a murderer and was himself murdered for giving evidence. Would you be guilty of being stupid for doing what you were taught was right? Another question is, is it safe? Is it safe for you to walk the streets, drink the water, fly on commercial airliners, speak to an attractive stranger, to believe the words of political, religious, corporate, and social leaders?

In smaller societies we worked side by side with leaders, wealthy property owners, and local ministers. Face-to-face meetings and friendly gossip gave us at least the illusion of understanding where we stood and what was right. But today the working urban dweller gets all this information from TV and computer screens -& and so often, we know, the media misinform. The feeling of being lied to brings about a hunger for truth. We want to know if the man on death row was really guilty. Were there actually WMDs in the hills of Iraq? Are people being tortured, and am I morally responsible for my government's actions?

In order to answer these questions we first turn, with a mistrustful eye, to objective opinion sources. Editorials in newspapers and magazines, talk shows and news programs, public radio, blogs, and (because there's just too much for one person to read, listen to, and view) friends who have gleaned information from other impartial venues.

But even as we take in the information shoveled out at a stupendous rate from dozens of different sources, we begin to worry. Who owns the news? How do bloggers pay their rent? Why, in spite of what I'm being told, is the economy, and the world in general, getting worse?

This dissatisfaction brings us to fictional accounts. Crime shows, mysteries, and films speak to the bystander in a dangerous world. These forms of entertainment corroborate our feelings of distrust and allow us to think about how we might fit into a world that wouldn't even be aware of us getting crushed under its collective weight.

Fiction, better than reality, gives us heroes who can't let us down, who cannot be arrested, convicted, or vilified. Maybe these stories won't be able to resolve our dilemmas in the real world, but they can offer escape through a fantasy where even a common everyday Joe (or Jane) can be saved.

This salvation has always been our goal. Forgiveness for our sinful desires and secret trysts, for our failures and broken commandments, for our weakness beside the machine that covers the world with its cold, gray shadow. This is why we have TV psychologists and mother substitutes, confessionals and paparazzi. On the one hand we're looking for deliverance, and on the other we seek to show how even the rich and famous are flawed.

We need forgiveness and someone to blame. So the story of crime fills our TVs, theaters, cinemas, computer files, and bookshelves. We are fascinated with stories of crime, real or imagined, because we need them to cleanse the modern world from our souls.

The presumption of innocence is carried a very long way by the American public, at least when it comes to celebrated crimes. Despite the weight of the evidence against them, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and James Earl Ray all have their dogged defenders in print. So do Lizzie Borden and Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. We seem to prefer big explanations for big crimes.

One fingerprint, one hit of DNA, one whispered secret, one hidden trace could mean prosecuting a murder, finding the loot or solving a mystery. Cold cases are matters of investigation that had roadblocks caused by insufficient evidence to closing a matter of a death by misadventure (or unexplained outcome).

And, of course, there is the occasional lucky break. Vallejo, California, authorities were able to recover a 6-year-old boy kidnapped when he was just two weeks old after his mother and grandmother were killed in a fire. Police received an anonymous tip leading them directly to the suspect.

Since 1960, per capita crime rates have more than tripled, while violent crime rates have nearly quintupled. By any measure, we live in a nation much less safe than that in which our parents grew up. This simply cries out for an explanation. What in our modern society could possibly account for the sudden and explosive growth in force, fraud, and coercion? Liberals typically posit socio-economic factors, such as poverty. Yet how can we attribute the rising tide of violence to rising poverty, when the periods of fastest crime growth have been during times of rapidly rising American wealth?

This popular "explanation" also fails on comparative grounds. Why is the richest nation on earth experiencing increases in predatory behavior that vastly exceed crime rates in much poorer nations? Why now, at a time of relative abundance and wealth, instead of during impoverished times pastsay, during our Great Depression? And why after decades of dumping trillions of dollars into programs to eradicate privation, hunger, illiteracy, insecurity, disease, hornelessness—the alleged "root causes" of crime? Liberal explanations for crime that blame psychological or biological factors also fall flat. Why, for example, would there have been an abrupt leap in mental illness or genetic defects starting in 1962, when crime rates began to take off?

Though a governmental "safety net" of sorts has existed since the New Deal, the modern American welfare state wasn’t enacted into law until the Great Society, and didn’t begin to make its impact felt until the end of the 1960s. Yet crime rates began to soar before that-in the early 1960s. How can we attribute rising crime to a welfare state which didn’t then exist?

Second, criminal behavior patterns start in youth, peaking in the late teen years. Whatever caused crime to explode in the 1960s would have had to been planted in young people during their formative years: in the 1950s. Where was the 1950s welfare state? Third, many nations have had welfare states far longer than America, yet have crime rates far lower than ours. Finally, U.S. crime rates have begun in recent years to level out, even decline a bit. Has there been any corresponding decline in welfare statism to "cause" this? Clearly not.

These liberal and conservative explanations for criminality share a common root: they blame factors outside the criminal himself. Liberals say "poverty made him do it." Conservatives say "welfare checks made him do it." Both share the false premise of economic determinism.

It is more fruitful to ask not "What causes crime?" but "What causes us not to commit crimes?" Social scientists posit two reasons: what they refer to as "external and internal constraints on behavior." External constraints are deterrents. We don’t commit crimes for fear of negative consequences, or punishments. Internal constraints, by contrast, are what we used to call "conscience." Most people accept certain moral standards; and when we violate those standards, we feel guilty about it. Our guilt feelings inhibit us from committing crimes- even when we think we can get away with them.

Crime has increased because of a systematic erosion in recent decades of both external and internal constraints on behavior. Deterrence has been weakened, while conscience has been deadened. Consider, first, the undermining of deterrence. For half a century, utilitarian prescriptions for crime control amounted to giving endless "second chances" to juvenile criminals, repeated probationary sentences to adult felons, and speedy releases to the relative few who landed behind bars.

In 1949 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that retribution was "no longer the dominant objective of the criminal law," but should be replaced by "reformation. and rehabilitation." Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, in his influential 1970 book, Crime in America, declared that "Punishment as an end in itself is itself a crime in our times…. Rehabilitation must be the goal of modern corrections. Every other consideration should be subordinated to it."

And so it was. The odds of punishment for a given crime have fallen sharply over the past 30 years. Today, a person who commits a serious crime has a better than 98 percent chance of avoiding prison. And thanks to early parole and generous "good time" allowances, the typical inmate serves only a third of his court-imposed sentence.

The undermining of external constraints is only a part of the problem. More important is the erosion of internal constraints. Most of us go about our daily business with a secure sense of routine. We walk past co-workers, sit with family members, wait in grocery store lines, seldom giving a thought to our personal safety. But imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which all these people suddenly, inexplicably, violently turned on you. In such a jungle, human life would become impossible. We would live like animals; our operative premise would no longer be "live and let live," but "kill or be killed."

We have not yet reached that stage, but the signs of social deterioration are unmistakable. More and more people act like speeding vehicles without steering wheels or brakes, leaving in their wake a growing trail of bloodshed and destruction. A moral code is the source of "internal constraints on behavior." It is the rudder of any culture, which keeps it from crashing against the shoals of violence, and sinking into chaos. Yet modern intellectuals, wedded to relativism, have not only abandoned the helm of moral leadership: they assault anyone who dares to assume it. Their normative vandalism has been so complete that today, even to use words such as "morality," "conscience," or "virtue," invites mockery and the rolling of eyes.

These intellectuals have virtually obliterated all external and internal constraints. As utilitarians, they have undermined deterrence. As relativists, they have eliminated guilt. They have thus unleashed the sociopaths we see around us-savages who act with impunity, and without conscience. We rightfully expect our justice system to impose external constraints on those lacking internal constraints. But we can never hire enough police, or build enough prisons, if our underlying moral crisis is not addressed. The real roots of criminality lie in the moral abdication occurring in our homes, communities, and institutions. Restoring moral direction is not a job we dare delegate to politicians. Rather, if our culture is to survive, we ourselves must begin to uphold, fight for, and inculcate the values and standards upon which any civilization rests.

Walter Mosley. True Crime. Newsweek. August 17, 2009.
Robert James Bidinotto. The "Root Causes" of Crime. Freeman Ideas on Liberty. June 1995; Volume: 45, Issue: 6.

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