Politicizing Crime

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."

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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