• 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

    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

    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.

    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
    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.

    25, 2009

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

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