Thursday, 19 September 2013

When is a Crime not a crime?


Image: Microsoft
Have you ever seen a ten-pound note drop from someone’s pocket as they rush off into the distance? No one saw it except you. You can race after them or slip the money in your wallet. No one will know. Maybe on this day, you hand it back and on another day you keep it. Maybe you’d always act one way or the other. Is it stealing? No – the guy dropped it. Is it right to take it? Probably not/Definitely not/Yes - which one?

The other day, I was with a new colleague, trying to get our heads around publicity issues in a public seating area. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man approaching. He made a big scene of dragging chairs to the table next to us and I could tell instantly that he was there to engage with strangers, rather than get on with any work. He looked shifty and, to be blunt, clearly 'on something'. After he'd made various comments in a bid to distract us, my colleague and I got up to move.
  
      'You're talking about committing crimes?' he asked.
      'Crime fiction, not real crime,' said my colleague.
   
I didn't hear what he said next, but my colleague told me he'd brought up an interesting dilemma. He said he 'helped' people (referring to his drug dealing).
   
      'I might be a criminal according to the law,’ he said, ‘but I'm a good person.' He slapped his chest to show how proud of himself he was.

image: Microsoft
As a Psychotherapist, I'm always being reminded of my early training to 'separate the behaviour from the person.' Good people do bad things and vice versa. My job is not to judge others, but to help them understand what drives them to carry out a harmful or illegal act. What was interesting at the South Bank, was this man's perception of his 'crime'; he clearly knew he was breaking the law, but his justification was that he was ‘helping his mates through a rough patch’, ‘tiding them over’, ‘enhancing their lives’. How could that be a crime?

I wondered at first if he seriously believed what he was saying or was hiding behind well-practised excuses. Was his reframing of the situation the only way he could live with himself? If you think you're doing something for the right reasons, is it less of a crime? (Take euthanasia, for example).

As a therapist, I’m interested in our intentions behind what we do and the nature of our own individual moral and ethical codes. It's worth noting that crimes are usually accompanied by the verb 'to commit'. We commit murder, we commit a burglary. The word implies we are one hundred per-cent behind the act, but many crimes aren’t like this. They are not ‘committed’ as such. They often come about after slipping over a fine line during a moment of weakness or rage. Or through a split-second decision. In fact, participation in all crimes could feature on a wide spectrum of underlying intention, from pure greed and malice all the way through to apparent acts of kindness, depending on our perspective. Ultimately though, it’s down to the courts to decide on the fit punishment.

If you’re interested in this kind of moral wrestling, look out for BBC Radio Four’s Dilemma programme, where Sue Perkins puts guests through the moral and ethical wringer (recordings are being made in October). Click here to Tweet this post