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
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,
'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
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
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.
©JAN FOSSGARD 2000