Politicizing Crime

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Recently, two
TSA workers were
caught stealing
an iPod and laptop as luggage passed through
security — and even switching around luggage tags to cover up their
work. Presumably the poor sap whose luggage it was would spend several
days tracking it down, and by the time he or she got to it, the
goods would be gone. Since the luggage would have changed hands
a dozen times before finally making it back to its rightful owner,
no one could possibly know at what point the devices were stolen.

Or so they
thought. The would-be thieves were not so lucky, as these electronic
devices had been planted by the government in a sting operation,
and the pair were in fact being watched very carefully. As easily
as they had tucked away someone else’s computer and music player,
the two men were arrested and now stand trial.

Score one for
property rights? Is this the kind of government self-monitoring
even libertarians can get behind?

Not so fast.

There is little
doubt that these two thugs, should they prove guilty of the charges,
are criminals. But listen carefully to the words of the District
Attorney, Richard Brown, who said about the men, "When air
travelers check their luggage with an airline, there is an implicit
trust that their bags and their contents will meet them at their
destination . . . The defendants are accused of betraying that
trust."

Notice what
the pair are on trial for. They are not on trial for their real
crime, which was stealing an iPod and a laptop. Settling the real
crime is a matter of coughing up a few thousand dollars to pay in
damages, with the almost-inevitable prospect of getting fired. The
company, too, would have to scramble to address the issue, as sticky-fingered
workers make for a nasty PR debacle. The company’s competitors would
be drooling at the chance to knock down the big guy a few notches.

Yes, there
would be plenty of fallout as a consequence of the crime,
but there would be no confusion over what the crime itself
was: stealing iPods and computers.

However, in
most instances, our justice system simply does not consider restitution
for the victims themselves. Nor are there alternative airport security
companies we can turn to. (Putting aside for a moment the rash assumption
that such a thing is even needed.) No, the only relevant questions
are, "What are these men guilty of?" and "What debt
do they owe to society as a result?"

In this case,
the crime in question is “betraying the implicit trust of air travelers
that their bags and contents will meet them at their destination.”
So, I ask, have these two men sinned against every airline-using
man, woman, and child in America? (You know, I thought I felt funny
for a moment there last Thursday. Turns out my trust was being violated!)

And how on
Earth does one decide how much to punish someone for breaking this
vaguely defined “trust?” According to the news story, four years
of one’s life spent in prison just about does the trick. But what
good can that really do for anyone? This is called justice: that
these two men, who have so shamefully broken the trust of the American
public, must rot in a concrete cell as a sign of their sincere repentance,
after which their debt to society will be paid.

This method
of punishing wrong-doing disturbs me to the core. Wrongdoing and
restitution is taken from the hands of those concerned and made
community property. Its inevitable result is to make perpetrators
into political scapegoats and scatter any hope the victim has of
compensation.

Mr. Brown’s
mentality is just another — albeit small — step on the path to everything
being made a political issue. And the more political leaders control
things, the more they rule by such vague terms as “trust” and “duty,”
rather than simply recognizing property rights for what they are.

"To
whom much is given, much will be required." Our government,
for so long out of the business of protecting rights, is currently
in the business of extending its provision of privileges and services
as widely as it can. It is done under the guise of care and responsibility,
but only a fool can think such generosity will not also serve as
leverage. After all, if the government paves your roads, builds
your car, provides you with health care, and employs you, then it
will expect obedience in return. To commit a crime against it is
not just a matter of a laptop or iPod; no, it is betrayal against
the very institution to whom you owe your life. Duty, loyalty, trust,
honor: these words will take on a disturbingly Orwellian flavor.

Many poor
Russians were dragged into KGB interrogation cells and accused of
such ridiculous crimes as betraying the motherland or acting against
the Communist party. (Read
about
them
sometime.) There was no such thing as stealing a pen from the office,
breaking the speed limit, or voicing your opinion. There was only
betrayal of one’s country and one’s leaders, and the punishment
for guilt (real or, as in most cases, imagined) was brutal.

Such is the
necessary end of politicizing every intimate detail of our lives.
Crimes have real victims: individuals. Political power is about
control — not compromise, not mediation, and certainly not justice.
For even the most minor of infractions may become a capital offense
in the eyes of an all-powerful ruler.

July
25, 2009

Daniel
Coleman [send him mail]
is a graduate student and freelance editor who lives in Annapolis,
Maryland. Visit his website.

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