Who Are Criminals?

After the question of ‘What is a Crime?’ the logical next step is to ask, ‘Who are criminals?’

It would be so easy and convenient at this point to seek out some class of depraved persons, whose thought processes were entirely different from our own, against whom we could project all our hostilities, and end up by hanging them or locking them all up and throwing away the key, so ridding the world of crime. It’s not that easy.

(1) Some people are obviously criminals from the very highest of motives. One thinks of Gandhi, deliberately defying the tax on salt, the thin end of a wedge that would finally destroy the foreign domination of his country. People such as Galileo who have been punished, because their dedication to truth counted for more than the threats and the power of the civil authority. They are the people who ‘march to the beat of a different drum’—in Bernard Shaw’s words, ‘the unreasonable people who change the world.’ The unemployed man who shoplifts to support his family—the ‘underground railroad’ that makes it possible for refugees to avoid immigration restrictions. Crime can in some cases have noble motives!

(2) Others defy the law because they find the law a nuisance. They place their private convenience ahead of the rules—particularly the kind of rules that a benevolent government sets up to save us all from our lower natures. All sorts of parking and traffic offences, speeding, technical things like driving without a seatbelt or without insurance. Liquor infractions, tax evasion, pornography, bootlegging, gambling, prostitution: it’s quite a long list. Nobody is particularly hurt in these ‘victimless’ crimes, so a whole class of people who think of themselves as good citizens still indulge from time to time in going on the wrong side of the law. If you’ve ever crossed a street against a red light, you belong to this class: not many people don’t.

(3) Finally, there are those whose actions actually cause unjustified harm to others—murder, theft, fraud, assault, rape, incest, extortion and other crimes of violence. These differ from the last class because they create an obvious victim. The mental element may well be the same as the previous set—a self-centered disregard for the social consequences of an act. It may be feeble-mindedness, drunkenness or mental unbalance. A little time in a typical Provincial Court certainly does not give one a high opinion of the I.Q. of the average person in trouble with the law. Often enough, it is the result of ‘uncontrollable impulses’, particularly in the case of assaults, shoplifting and repeat sexual offenders. I suspect that abuse in childhood, especially in the years before a child learns to speak, creates problems of personality in this direction that are immensely difficult to eradicate. It may be showing off, or looking for the thrill of playing ‘cops and robbers’. It could be bloody mindedness, and general hostility against the human race. It may be the result of depression and self-hate, leading to a desire to be caught and punished. We are not by any means dealing with a uniform class and motivation.

Disregarding classes (1) and (2) for the moment, where the motive for the criminal action is often highly rational, there is a common element in the criminal behaviour of class (3), and that is a lack of rational and socially purposeful behaviour.

In his book The Unconscious God, Viktor Frankl takes issue with Freud on the subject of human motivation. Rather than following Freud in regarding this as essentially the result of sexual or other impulses, Frankl introduces the concept of human behaviour motivated by a perception by the individual that he has a place to fit in to the ongoing development of the world. Mozart and Beethoven, for example, have a genius for musical composition, and this drives them to deliver their offerings to the world whether or not they are starving for not having chosen a more lucrative career. Madame Curie pursues the discovery of radium, poets starve in garrets, Gandhi goes to prison, Frankl himself survives in a concentration camp, all because in the end they have a sense of a vocation—a gift or a potential that they have to fulfil in the world, a meaning that they must express through the way they live their lives. By contrast, the psychological tests run on the criminal population give a high degree of aimlessness. ‘Criminality and purpose in life are inversely related’—and this goes for depression and addictions also.

Let’s leave it to next time to think about what should be done with criminals in the light of the above.

– Gemini, December 1987