We like to picture America as a country of virtue and hard work — and it is, but what many of us forget is that crime, or at least morally questionable behavior, is an integral part of our history, culture and social roles.
While our history is full of triumphs and progress toward a more free, equal and morally superior society, we have committed our fair share of sins. Let’s start at the beginning. As far back as the formation of the colonies, America employed slavery, a humanitarian travesty. During revolutionary times, the Boston Tea Party could be considered vandalism on a grand scale and seceding from England a crime against the crown. Later, we forcefully took a good chunk of the south during the Mexican-American War. During our westward expansion, we outright stole land from, and slaughtered, Native Americans. Then, during WWII, we saw Japanese internment camps. The Cold War brought the toppling of democratically elected leaders — primarily in South American countries — and the MK-Ultra project. More recently, we have witnessed the Watergate scandal, the Iran Contra Affair, black sites and global wiretapping emerge.
But crimes aren’t just what checker our past, they’re what permeate our current culture. For example, when you peruse the channels on your TV, what’s the first subject matter you typically come across? Crime. It’s one of the main subjects of our news broadcasts, our favorite shows and our movies. This focus on criminal acts appears everywhere in our media: video games, radio broadcasts, online content, music and even our literature. The media and the public both romanticize this lifestyle choice —as seen in Grand Theft Auto and “Fight Club” — as well as villainize crime, as we clearly see in shows like “Criminal Minds,” “Cold Case” and “CSI.” We don’t love or hate crime — rather, we are simply obsessed with it.
Criminals, in collusion with presidential anecdotes and great American myths like Paul Bunyan, help create our folklore. People like Jesse James, D.B. Cooper and Capone have become our legends. Serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, The Son of Sam and Ted Bundy have become our monsters. Vigilantes have become our anti-heros. The best real life example of this is Christopher Dorner, a former Navy-reservist-turned-California-cop. In 2013 he was supposedly fired because of his reports detailing excessive force used by his fellow officers. As a result, Dorner went on a nine day rampage, killing four officers and injuring three others before turning the gun on himself in a stand off with police. Most people found his behavior vile, and for good reason. However, social media blew up with supportive messages saying things like “We are all Chris Dorner.” This minority was composed overwhelmingly of citizens who felt marginalized, even abused, by California police, and Dorner was their hero. But this isn’t an isolated event. Similar examples can be found in fictional characters like Dexter, the Punisher, Deadpool and Wolverine.
Crime also acts as our cultural symbols. Sexual predators, murderers and drug dealers are seen as cowardly and morally depraved. Crooked cops, politicians and CEOs have a place as the ultimate symbols of corruption. In contrast, some criminals have been granted somewhat positive connotations. The great American bank robber, for example, is often viewed as a symbol of freedom and cunning. The gangster, in some low-, middle- and even high-income areas is often seen as a symbol of power, machismo and a “ladies man.” The little-recognized graffiti artist is often a symbol of creativity and anti-authoritarianism.
Even our language has been shaped by crime. Slang terms like “roscoe,” “lick,” “Mary Jane,” “capped” and many others are direct creations of this country’s underworld.
In some sense, crime also acts as societal therapy. When we question whether we’ve made an immoral decision or if we’re good people, we can read the news and sigh “Well, at least I didn’t kill six people and hide them in my basement.” As insane as that may sound, there’s an undeniable reassurance we reap from knowing there are worse people out there than us.
When you look at American ideals, the reasons that we have a culture that rallies around crime becomes clear. On one hand, Americans like order, security and virtue. This is something that is not embodied in crime, but it is why criminals are the perfect targets for our disdain. On the other hand, we cherish freedom, wealth, excitement, anti-authoritarianism and, to some extent, ruthless pragmatism. Criminals and crimes do represent those notions, which make them candidates for our admiration as well.
Many people would argue that this criminal fixation is detrimental to our society, but before we jump to that conclusion, remember this: If we didn’t have crime as a main part of our culture, we would lose some of what gives it its color, and that would be a crime in itself.
Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @hazeltonpaul.