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Incomprehensible Crime

SOME CRIMES are comprehensible to me and some are not. I recall being amused some years ago at Dick Tracy’s pronouncement that “dognapping” was the most despicable crime imaginable. Perhaps my incomprehension will be as ridiculous to you as Tracy’s statement was to me. In any case, I can vaguely understand all crimes of violence, and I know there are people who prey on others by burglary, robbery, mugging and the like as a meager source of income. I have read that one of the hazards facing the derelict alcoholic is that his clothes may be stolen from him when he is unconscious by other bums who will try to sell them for a few cents to buy their own needed alcohol.

I can understand embezzlement and stealing from corporations and stealing from those who seem economically equal or better off. I can even understand Agnew. That is, I understand his crime. I don’t really understand the air of self-righteous rectitude indulged in by such crooks as Agnew, but I know there is a long history of this kind of behavior. Here, what’s hard to believe is not their crookedness but their gall.

But I cannot understand a man who, from no economic necessity, knowingly steals from the destitute. And on a less moral, but very practical level, I do not understand those who steal from anybody in the presence of witnesses. About a year ago an indigent old man was evicted from his apartment in Washington and his poor possessions piled at the curb. In the old man’s absence people stole most of his belongings and smashed the rest. I think most of us suburbanites on reading the newspaper story felt, “That’s Washington for you. It’s like a jungle.”

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Recently in Hyattsville, a suburban town, a family was evicted while they were absent and their apartment furnishings were also stacked at the curb. While a deputy sheriff rubbed down his car nearby, and a police car once stopped at the scene, people proceeded to steal the evicted family’s belongings. Would you believe white, middle-aged men and women, working people, who parked their late-model cars, opened their trunks, and loaded up with no regard for even a photographer recording their crime.

The sheriff’s office and the police worked up quite a sweat explaining that the deputy didn’t notice, the police could not spend their time guarding an individual’s property, and besides, they could take no action unless the owner filed a complaint, etc. Heart-rending to hear them.

Bewilderingly, some of the people who stole the furnishings brought them back the day after the news story appeared. Evidently, these people were unable to figure out, until they read it in the newspaper, that they were doing wrong by taking someone’s property.

The Washington Star commented that if a windstorm blew the side off a house, people offered assistance, or at least did not immediately start stealing the furniture and suggested that there was a feeling that an evicted family deserved punishment. I keep thinking of a shark who as the misfortune to get wounded and is immediately devoured by his companion sharks.

In cases of widespread disaster, looting has always been a problem and, in general, except in the particular cases of inner-city riots, has been severely punished. Even where the death penalty is rare, the command may be “looters will be shot on sight.” I assume this is because we feel that one disaster is enough for a person to be subjected to. In any case the looters are not considered to be comprised of neighbors and fellow workers, again excepting city riots. The people who stole the Hyattsville family’s furnishings seemed to be the typical people of the neighborhood. Perhaps the same ones who complain about the crime in the streets and are strong on “law and order.”

It makes one feel dirty.

I am reminded of a talk by Philip Zimbardo, professor of psychology, Stanford University, which I heard recently. He has become internationally known for his prison experiments which were discussed in Boxwooder 46. His major project is to understand why people behave in “good” and “evil” ways – what are the factors in our society which lead to evil behavior? This is a gross simplification of his research, but he is trying to isolate and test factors which are suspected to affect behavior.

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He said that when he lived in New York City, he was continually noticing on the city streets autos which had been stripped of every removable part and demolished. The police, when questioned about this, rather vaguely suggested “it’s the kids.” Professor Zimbardo said he wondered what kid would be able to remove an engine.

I believe he was at NYU at the time. Anyway, the Psychology Department bought a number of old cars and began an investigation of the stripping process. The method was to park a car, with the hood raised to indicate trouble, on a city street and to photograph with a concealed movie camera any stripping which might take place. He showed us some of the resultant movies.

Within 20 minutes of parking the car, a fairly new car parked in front of the bait car. Three people got out, a man and a woman, white , mid-forties, and a girl, twelve or so. The man removed the battery, the woman took the spare tire from the trunk, and the girl took the contents of the glove compartment. Within an hour another car stopped and a man removed the radiator. By late afternoon the car was essentially stripped. Wheels, doors, engine, everything removable had been removed.

Through experience they found that once a car was in this condition it was usual for people to stop and throw rocks through the windshield and the windows. To the filming crew’s amazement when one car had been reduced to a bare hulk, a man parked in front of it, urinated on the derelict, returned to his car and drove away.

The experiment was repeated many times with very similar results. The typical car stripper was a white, middle-aged, working-class man; the very sort considered to be the solid foundation of our society.

The experimenters later found it was unnecessary to conceal themselves. At one place they parked the bait car by an iron rail fence and one of the experimenters would sit on the fence, ten feet from the car, and talk to those who stripped it. “I’m just getting the battery,” said one stripper when asked what he was doing. No one seemed concerned that he was committing a crime and none was concerned that the crime was observed by a stranger.

After Professor Zimbardo began teaching at Stanford, he tried the experiment there. A car was parked with its hood raised on a street in Palo Alto, California. In three weeks only one person touched the car – one day when it was raining a man stopped and put the hood down.

Obviously this difference of behavior in the two cities is puzzling. Professor Zimbardo believes that a partial answer, at least, is found in a difference of anonymity in the two areas. He said that in New York one can trade at the same corner grocery for two years and no one ever learns to recognize him. Each time he gives a check he must go through the whole identification procedure. On the other hand, he says that in Palo Alto the attitude is quite different. He does not know why, but people very quickly come to call you by name and otherwise identify you. He says Palo Alto has its problems but anonymity is not one of them. He believes that anonymity is a big factor in the breaking down of people’s inhibitions to do evil. It is one of several factors which he is investigating by ingenious laboratory and field experiments.

In general the factors he is considering conform to our commonsense appreciation of the situation. Certainly we know that in the epitome of non-anonymity, a small town, no inhabitant would strip a car in sight of another inhabitant.

One disturbing aspect of the factors being considered is that our society seems to be moving toward increasing them. Certainly our constant trend to urbanization tends to increase the anonymity factor.

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Onion a la Carte

MOST MONDAYS, Wednesdays and Fridays, my co-workers and I have a hamburger for lunch at the South Pacific Restaurant. The hamburger is a special on those days. It is a very nice restaurant, the food is good and the prices are reasonable.* Service is good. (Actually, for reasons unknown, the service is either excellent or terrible, but since it is excellent most of the time, any reasonable weighting would produce an average of “good.”

There is, however, one problem. I like a slice of onion on my hamburgers and this little eccentricity has caused me untold (heretofore) grief at the South Pacific. The waiter turnover at the South Pacific is quite rapid, and I can always tell when I have a new one by his reaction to my request. This reaction belies the “inscrutable oriental” stereotype. It is, in fact, something akin to shock, fear or horror. Tremulously, he will repeat something approaching “Onon?” as if his ears must be deceiving him. Does the sound, “onion,” closely resemble a Chinese word so foul that he cannot imagine anyone saying such a thing right in public?

I have considered carrying a picture of a slice of onion to show them or even a real slice of onion sealed in plastic. Sometimes on the check is written “1 hamb” and then there follows a series of about 15 Chinese-looking ideographs. Why should it take so many characters to specify a slice of onion? Do they include an apology to the cook? Or perhaps a propitiation to some onion-hating eastern deity?

Even when the waiters understand, there seems to be a great reluctance to bring onion. One waiter told me that the hamburger was a “special” and therefore onion could not be included with it. I told him that every restaurant in town, including McDonald’s, would give onion on your hamburger. Another time a waiter said he didn’t think the cook would slice an onion because he was in a very bad mood. I told him I didn’t care about the cook’s mood, to give him my order and to send him out to me if he had any objection.

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One day while lunching there with some out-of-town people, I told them about the onion difficulty. The waiter then took my order without turning a hair, and my fellow diners began to accuse me of exaggeration. “Just wait,” I said, “it may not be over yet.” Sure enough, when my hamburger came, there was no onion. Upon my complaint, the waiter looked as if he’d never heard the word before, but presently returned with a dinner plate piled high with onion slices.

Recently when I ordered the usual slice of onion, the waiter said, “That will be twenty-five cents extra.”

“What?” I protested, loudly. “Twenty-five cents for a slice of onion?”

“Yes,” he said. “You want?”

“Well, hell, no,” I said. “I’m not about to pay a quarter for a slice of onion.”

I ate my hamburger without onion. Just as I was finishing, here came the waiter with a slice of onion and a saucer. “We charge twenty-five cents, but we cancel,” he said. I did not, and do not, know what he meant, but I told him I didn’t want a slice of onion after I had finished my hamburger.

“Don’t want!” he said, in apparent astonishment, and scraped it into the garbage. Clearly, he would have a story to tell his fellow waiters about the blue-eyed devil who could not make up his mind.

* Perhaps moderate would be a better word. The Hamburger Special is $1.25 on Mondays and Wednesdays but is $1.35 on Fridays. Suspecting a typo, we called this to the manager’s attention. “Oh, yes,” he explained, “it’s a different day.” When further pressed, he clarified this by, “That’s the way the menu worked out.” Someone gave the translation, “That’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles.”

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Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is 18, 24, and 30-point Raleigh Cursive. Paper is 60-lb. Warren’s Olde Style; cover is blue index stock. Published and printed for pleasure in an edition of 445 copies by Jake Warner on a 10 x 15 C&P at the Boxwood Press at Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.

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