Romantic criminals, criminal romantics

By Paul Fallavollita
web posted August 28, 2000

Conservatives are supposed to be strong law and order types. Yet, there is an argument to be made for a mode of conservatism that resists dedicating itself to the total extirpation of crime, particularly when that process involves wielding a centralized, powerful state. The recent efforts of government at the federal, state, and local levels to police the Internet to combat the production of false identification documents provides a perfect arena for framing this argument.

The days when a man who landed in hot water could hitch a ride to the next county or state on a passing freight train and quietly assume a new identity, perhaps as a dishwasher or short-order cook, are coming to a close. This age of digitalization and consolidation of records makes avoiding a paper trail ever more difficult. Lately, the government has been compounding that difficulty by launching a campaign against "fake ID" vendors that use the Internet as their marketplace. The government's willingness to destroy the latest frontier of human freedom—cyberspace—shows the stark tyranny and sterility that the law and order mentality manifests when pushed to the extreme.

Senator Susan M. Collins

A five-month federal investigation into Internet-based fake ID sales was completed in May, 2000 by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Republican Senator Susan M. Collins. Her opening statement expressed the usual technophobic fearmongering common to lawmakers, but also had a darker side as well. It would seem that Republicans no longer believe that old Anglo-Saxon dictum "a man's home is his castle." Twice Collins used the phrase "seclusion of their own homes" to indicate her dismay at how people are making false documents outside the watchful eye of Big Brother. She also expressed concern that "because this is relatively a new phenomenon, there are no good data" on the industry—meaning that the Internet is moving too fast for the Secret Service to keep up with. Collins also decried the Internet's ability to provide "virtual anonymity." So much for the Contract with America's subtext of getting government off our backs and out of our lives. Collins would have government peeking in the window at our computer screens.

Clearly, the reason for the federal investigation by the Permanent Subcommittee is that lawmakers are bored and fill their time as public busybodies, to justify their paychecks drawn on the Federal Treasury and to make good copy for the press back home and the constituents. The problems of identity fraud are not widespread. They are relatively uncommon and infrequent crimes, but they are magnified and showcased because they involve esoteric technology and expose a weakness of the supposedly invincible United States Government, which is why we see the increased activism. One solution to this problem of the "crusading legislator" is to abolish many of these committees (again, a shortfall of the Contract With America) and a shortening of the legislative session.

What frustrates the would-be utopians both Left and Right, is the fact that human beings have a nasty habit called "adaptation." The State invents one security measure after another—bar codes, holograms, magnetic strips, microwriting—yet, given time and effort, people learn new ways to forge and thereby foil these devices (no pun intended). A strange sort of "balance of power" emerges, with both the State and the citizen-turned-criminal competitively racing to outmaneuver the other. The race is a dead heat, however, since any gain one side makes is usually quickly countered. It is a beautiful thing, this struggle is. What is truly frightening is that there are those working diligently to put a final end to the struggle, foreclosing all possibilities of resistance.

I can imagine there are those who would say of my argument against the total sanitizing of society, "try arguing that to someone who's just been mugged, or to a relative of someone who's been killed." Spare me. If that is the best objection that can be made, then we need some lessons on the twin concepts of proportionality and context. Proportionality and context mean that ridiculous emotional retorts such as that should be dismissed, since they are forms of the reductio ad absurdum. Obviously, no one in their right mind would encourage thievery or murder. I am not advocating that dangerous criminals all be given "get out of jail free" cards. Some crimes and many criminals have no redeeming qualities. However, there are some species of crime and criminals that are not seriously injurious, and the freewheeling antics of such criminals historically forms a part of Americana, the loss of which should be mourned. I won't even detail the old folk hero status of Bonnie and Clyde.

Fortunately, if our collective imagination is a sign, there is always hope. Our popular culture continues to reflect the yearning for a frontier, even where sordid things happen on that frontier. The original television series Star Trek, not the recent pasteurized and sanitized versions, holds out the hope that even as technology advances us to the stars, the fugitive will follow. Many times in the series the successful escape of many shady characters can be noted, who went off from distant colony to far-flung outpost, laying low in what passes for the local "saloon." We see that despite Collins' goal of the "death of crime," Roddenberry's "wagon train to the stars" can free a culture.

Human beings yearn to be free, and some yearn for the chance to start over, but cannot because of the sophisticated level of technology the government deploys against the citizens. Frankly, the Third Wave has undermined the romanticism associated with the status of the fugitive. Novels can still be written about the subject, but we will have a harder time enjoying them since we now know it is necessary to suspend disbelief ever more rigorously while reading. We know it is becoming impossible for the story line to be replicated in real life. Art having truly been divorced from real existence, perhaps our only hope remaining is that old balance of power.

Paul Fallavollita is currently a first-year graduate student in political science, studying international relations and political theory, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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