One could say that the history of mankind is the history of crime.

Weapons were among man's first tools, war has ravaged almost every corner of the globe, nearly all the nations and peoples on earth have suffered persecution at some point, while petty crimes are a daily occurrence for many and a fact of life for everyone. Yet crime is not always bad, some would have us believe. It features prominently in all the greatest works of literature, it captivates the imagination, has an allure and attraction all of its own. Wouldn't the world's canon of great works, whether films, plays or novels, begin to look a little thin if we binned all the ones that dealt with crime? And might the oeuvres that remained not look a bit boring also? How are we to deal with the mixed signals about crime?

In some twisted way, we're rather in love with crime and its perpetrators. Everyone has a place in his heart for the lovable rogue. OK, it's an uneasy relationship in that when the criminal or the crime gets too close for comfort, we spurn them. But we don't like them to be too far away either. There's a worrying side to all this. Think of crucifixions, hangings, stonings, public executions where spectators jostle for intimacy.

Down the ages, people have been thrilled by the proximity of the criminal, and rapt by the spectacle of his suffering, humiliation and death, when appropriately sanctioned by a larger authority. People are frighteningly bloodthirsty. I admit it, I'd be there too, but probably somewhere at the back (I tell myself), watching the people watching.  

Theatre scholars have been quick to point out the similarities between the stage and the scaffold. Either way, real or fictitious criminals have trodden the boards and people have loved them or loved to hate them in much the same way.

It is deeply unsettling to think that people can witness public executions without being aware that what they are observing is just another kind of crime. No, sanction by government does not redeem these crimes, in my view. When people have stood and watched public executions, even though they may never have picked up a stone or cheered, simply by being there, their eyes dark with approval, they have been accessories in terrible crimes. Who is to blame for the murder of Jesus Christ? The Romans or the Jews? Everyone was to blame, everyone who knew about it and did nothing. Murder is murder, whether in a dark alley or on the public stage: is it any less horrible when approved by the state? Surely it's much worse. The signal it sends out from the highest ranks is that murder is acceptable.

Capital punishment has nothing to do with the protection of innocent civilians from dangerous criminals (it suffices to lock them up to achieve that), but with the age-old love affair with bloody revenge and more disturbingly with the exercise and assertion of authority. The word ‘execution' itself is tainted with the sense of ‘authoritative sanction'. The power to pardon and to punish is a reasonable and necessary part of any effective government, but state-sanctioned murder is the most arrogant and sickening crime of all. There are better governments and there are worse governments, but none is without its failings. Composed of imperfect human beings, how can government or the criminal justice system ever be expected to make a flawless judgment? Put simply, no one has the right to take the life of another.

While state-sanctioned public murder is worrying, there are more disturbing crimes out there. Call me paranoid, but it's not muggings or computer hackers that keep me awake at night, it's being carried off by hooded justices and condemned for a crime I never knew existed. (Or perhaps that's what an Oxford education did for me: to instil the fear of authority and the nine o'clock tutorial.) What worries me is not the crimes we hear about, it's the ones we don't, the ones that get hushed up.

Back in the eighties, 22 British scientists died in mysterious circumstances, one after the other. Take the case of Alistair Beckham, a successful British aerospace-projects engineer, who specialised in designing computer software for sophisticated naval defence systems. He was working on a pilot program for America's SDI or global defence initiative. A website dedicated to the case, reports:

'It was a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1988. After driving his wife to work, Beckham walked through his garden to a musty backyard toolshed and sat down on a box next to the door. He wrapped bare wires around his chest, attached them to an electrical outlet and put a handkerchief in his mouth. Then he pulled the switch.'

Though his death was recorded as suicide, his wife said that he had never suffered depression and their marriage had been happy and stable. Another of the cases involved a man named Peter Peapell, whose wife found him dead underneath his car, his mouth just under the exhaust pipe. The car was parked in his garage, the engine was running and the garage door was shut. The death was considered suspicious, though the verdict was ‘accidental death'.

The Thatcher government denied any connection between the deaths of the 22 SDI scientists, but stated that their work was ‘stressful' and this might have been a cause. To this day, no further light has been cast on the strange deathly coincidences.

I forgive the Peruvians who took my camera bag as I sat in a cafe sipping a cool diet Pepsi on a hot day in Arequipa. I console myself with the thought that they sold the camera to feed their families. And I can forgive the tipsy Mexican policemen who nicked my penknife. There was even some humour in their misdeed: they volunteered to look after my things, but did exactly the opposite.

As crimes go, these were almost honest, compared with the institutionalised violence, corruption and conspiracy of silence practised by those in power. Whether public or secret, there is nothing lovable about such crimes. They are always cowardly, hypocritical and sick to the core. And if we do nothing about it, so are we.