The Absent Character In Best Crime Reporting, 2010

I read this year's Best Crime Reporting with a guilty sort of pleasure. It was a gift, so reading it over the holidays was appropriate enough. But wasn't I taking a few weeks off? Why the appeal of crime stories in a season devoted to time away from the grind of a criminal law practice?

The series has been published for a number of years now by an imprint of Harper Collins. The series' editors, Otto Penzler of Manhattan's Mysterious Bookshop, and Edgar Allen Poe Award winning author Thomas Cook, select an editor for each year's edition. That editor reads through nominations, and selects entries. The writing is always superb. The Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and Harpers are represented. Jeffrey Toobin. Ron Chertow and Calvin Trillin spin graceful tales of true crime.

The 2010 editor is Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame, a not so obvious choice. Still, Dubner's brief introductory essay raises an interesting point. In 1991-1992, when the rates for violent crime were at their height, there was little on television to reflect the violence around us. Of the top 20 television shows, only two had crime themes, the droll, Murder, She Wrote, and Unsolved Mysteries. In 2008, with rates of violent crime at a low point, 10 of the top 20 shows were about violent crime. We've the various CSIs, Cold Cases, Criminal Minds, Without a Trace and others. What is it about crime that makes it so irresistibly entertaining?

"Many of us preserve a useful fiction," Dubner writes, "that criminals are unlike you and me in every way, but they aren't as different as we may wish -- most certainly so in that they, like us, respond fiercely to incentives." Dubner renders the criminal as akin to the sinner, a person who transgresses the boundaries separating the good from the evil. It reminded me greatly of the temptation to render the criminal code in terms of the Seven Deadly SIns: there are crimes of lust, anger, envy and greed, even of sloth, I suspect.

But the temptation to lump together sins and crimes is at the root of one of the greatest and gravest heresies of our time: The heresy of the state as a source of good. I stand with Augustine in wonder over whether a good man can be a good citizen. Making the state the focal point of goodness is simple statist Manicheanism, a cheap and easy version of dualism that separates good from evil and reposes both in different sources. We are each the source of such good and evil as can be found in this world.

Sin, we say,is an offense against God; at the very least it is a surrender of the whole of our personality to one set of instincts or desires necessary for survival. Thus a lustful man lives only for the activities surrounding procreation; the greedy man hordes as an end in itself, rather than as a means of assuring survival. Crime, by contrast, is a mere violation of a rule set by the sovereign: It is violation of a rule imposed by others.

Crimes and sins can overlap. We say some things are malum in se, or bad in themselves. Homicide is wrong in most contexts. It does not take a state to tell us so. But the vast and ever growing expanse of criminal law is detached from any moral significance. It is merely the sovereign's effort to exert control. What seduces us into yielding to the sovereign?

I suspect crime stories fascinate for a couple of reasons. First, we know, secretly and in places we care not to share too often with others, that each of us is capable of the greatest of crimes. Clarence Darrow once observed that he had never killed a man, but read many an obituary with pleasure. That pleasure was the root of sin. It is the same sort of guilty satisfaction that draws us irresistibly to reports of great crimes. We are many of us, and, perhaps, all of us, killers at heart, and thieves, too. It shocks no one to observe any longer our vast longing for sexual misconduct: how else to explain the use of sex to sell just about everything, and then the savage sexophrenic instinct to punish anyone who takes the advertisers' message too seriously?

But an even greater source of satisfaction in the telling of crimes stories yields an even greater danger: It is the heresy of good. We tell stories that tempt, titillate, and terrify, realizing that within each of us are secret worlds of evil. But then we give to the state, the all-powerful and ever-good state, the ability to stamp out evil. If we but trust and obey, we will be safe. So we awaken desire within us by resort to crime fiction and obsession with true crime; then we suppress the fear by telling tales about top lawmen and women on behalf of the state solving these crimes. But making the state a source of good is as dangerous as denying the reality of evil within us all. The state, a legal fiction, feeds on fear: Hence the willing surrender of liberty to feel safe, and the great victory of terrorists in persuading us to surrender freedom to the illusion of security.

Nowhere in this year's Best Crime Reporting did the authors report on the deeper drama of crime reporting. Each reporter was mesmerized by the well-told tales they relayed. The state lurked off-stage, an ever present, but silent, backdrop. I read the stories with a sense of fascination, but without a sense that great crimes had been committed. Rather, I saw many ordinary failures by ordinary people. The stories did not terrify or frighten; they did not even sadden, or at least not much. Each was a tiny mirror in which I saw the consequences of a lack of restraint. When the crimes were "solved", I felt no sense of relief. The state did not redeem or restore cosmic order. It merely cleaned up after disordered souls. Perhaps the absence of the state as a moral agent in these stories is the work's greatest contribution. We are the sum of good and evil, each of us; the state is but one in a series of fairy tales we tell ourselves when we need to be rescued from the fear we harbor of what we bear within.  

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