Sunday, September 12, 2021

Vandals - Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Vandalism is a crime that profits no one. But then again, most crime isn't very profitable.

It isn't hard to understand why some folks commit crimes.  They want the money.  Whether it is a drug addict holding up a bank or a gas station for a pittance, or an organized gang smuggling drugs or running various rackets, the motivation is money.  This isn't to say they end up being profitable - many come to a bad end, either dying or ending up in jail, and what money they managed to accumulate through crime is quickly dissipated.

There are, of course, crimes of passion.  Someone gets angry and punches you in the face, not for financial gain, but because you told them their sister was ugly.  Or someone shoots their spouse due to a family argument or whatnot.  The papers are full of these kinds of crimes - they are the result of an emotional catharsis run amok.

But there are other kinds of crimes that don't seem to fit into either of these two categories.  These are crimes that are not only unprofitable, but cost the criminal money in some cases.  And they are often not emotionally based, but carefully planned out hours or days in advance.  And vandalism is one of those crimes.  It makes no sense to me.

When I was a teenager, I had family members and friends engage in vandalism, and I went along with them and watched, which in retrospect was a mistake - having an audience is one thing a vandal craves.  But I was only 13 at the time, and while I sensed what was going on was wrong, I figured my older peers knew what they were doing, and any protests I made would result in my being banned from the group, or worse yet, being called a "wuss."

Sadly, that is how a lot of this petty vandalism happens - peer pressure.  I knew one guy, a friend of my brother's, who would always encourage my brother to do stupid things.  I guess he liked the idea of controlling other people.  He lived down the road with his "strict" parents who searched his room every day for drugs.  He came from a weird family, and he ended up weird as a result.  He was sort of like the character Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, who came across as clean-cut and square and was always oh-so-polite to adults, but adults could sense he was trouble from the get-go.  Not so my brother.

As a result, my brother "got into trouble" on more than one occasion on the instigation of this Eddie Haskell character, who goaded him on into committing acts of vandalism for him, or letting him store his stash of drugs in my brother's car (with predictable results).  With friends like that...

And I had a friend like that.  My "buddy" Tommy used to try to egg me on to doing stupid things.  I usually refused.  But my other friend Greg, who was a nice guy but not the brightest bulb in the universe, would take his suggestions seriously. "Hey Greg, you've got a good throwing arm!" (and he did), "I betcha you can't knock out that streetlight with this rock!"  And Greg of course, nailed it, with a pop and the sound of shattered glass showering down around us and everyone ran, except Greg, of course, who was picked up by the Police cruiser that just happened to be around the corner.  Once again, Greg "got into trouble".

I had another friend, Ed, who liked to smash things while drunk.  Sometimes this escalated to shooting off guns, including his father's .30-06 - sometimes across the lake.  His family had a history of mental illness and his brother killed himself when he was a teenager.  So Ed got shitfaced drunk almost every day and his parents sort of looked the other way.   Again, I would go along with Ed on his vandalism trips, which was a mistake, in retrospect. Even though I wasn't participating in his mayhem, my presence was an implicit endorsement of it.

So mental illness may enter into the picture - emotional issues.  People want to be part of the group, or they have demons that must be exorcised, and smashing a public drinking fountain provides that sense of relief - or they think it will.   I suspect it doesn't provide much of a catharsis, but it is probably better than smashing some little old lady on the head.  And maybe that is why our judicial system sort of coddles these sort of criminals - we realize that teenagers have a lot an angst, and society can better afford a new street sign than a broken skull.

I wrote before about graffiti, which is a different kind of vandalism.  The motivations of the "graffiti artist" or "tagger" (and the two are different things, of course) mystifies me.  They are not releasing anger or tension, and certainly not profiting from their venture.  In fact, they may have to spend a staggering amount of money (and time) to spray-paint a mural on a train that they will never see again and what's more, no one they know may ever see again.  If they don't buy all that spray-paint, they at the very least risk jail by shoplifting it.  And how do you shoplift an entire case of spray paint?

The term "vandal" of course, goes back to the declining years of the Roman Empire. Ironically, the Vandals were a Germanic people, and today, you can't find a country that keeps itself neater and cleaner than Germany.  I guess they only vandalize other peoples' countries.  Smart!

But apparently their forebears invaded Rome and smashed everything in sight, often "defacing" Roman statutes by, well, you guessed it, smashing the faces.   People thought the destruction was pointless and certainly not profitable - and hence the term "vandalism" was born.

Of course, there may be deeper reasons for such destruction in times of war.  When you invade a city-state and steal all their stuff, they may recover from such a setback - and later on, attack you.  But when you reduce their city to ruins, and then salt the earth, well, it kinds of makes it hard for them to bounce back.  It is sending a message - a crushing blow.  So maybe that is the point of it all.   And maybe it is a catharsis for the vandals themselves.  Beats me.

On a personal level, vandalism makes no sense.  But of course, when you are younger, you don't have a lot of common sense, and that's why vandalism is usually the act of bored teenagers.  You don't see 60-year-olds "tagging" a freight train.   We've got better things to do with our time.

But also it means that tolerating or even celebrating vandalism is a mistake.  Some folks use the term "graffiti artist" which I kind of hate to use, other that to distinguish such folks from the more plebian "tagger" - the latter of which just wants to spread his name, or that of his gang around, much as a cat or dog "marks their territory" by pissing on everything.  They make life miserable for the rest of us, or at least, not as appealing.

And all it takes is just one guy to muck things up.  We were at a brand-new KOA resort in Montana once, and they had this wonderful brand-new bathhouse with granite counter-tops and slate tile on the walls and recessed lighting and whatnot.  It was nicer than most peoples' homes.  But before we left, some numb-nuts had to go scratch his name in the slate tile, making the "perfect" bathroom just a little less perfect.  And once one person puts their name up there, others feel obliged to add their own, and pretty soon, nice things look like crap, and then someone kicks out a window and, well, we all know the rest.

Much ado has been made about "broken window policing" - the idea that if you stop small crimes, you end up stopping larger ones.  Once people see a neighborhood with graffiti and vandalism, they start to think no one is watching and no one cares, and this in turn, gives them "permission" to act out themselves, either by committing crimes, or adding to the mayhem.   Sadly, even though this form of policing was shown to work, it has come under criticism as being "racist" because police were "hassling" people who loitered on street corners selling drugs and minding their own business.

Funny thing that - when you chase the drug dealers out of a neighborhood, the number of drive-by shootings declines dramatically.  And without drug addicts around, the amount of petty theft and street crimes also declines.  Of course, this often means only that the crime moves on to another part of the city.   But nevertheless, it was a strategy that worked.  Until it was abandoned in recent years, crime rates were in free-fall across the nation - at rates the lowest in the history of our country.  All that has changed - and is changing.

Today, we are encouraged to celebrate vandals, if not feel sorry for them.  The guy defacing a train isn't a criminal, he's an artist.  The "tagger" is expressing his ethnic identity, and those of us who have no ethnic identity are not qualified to judge!  We have to understand and coddle the guy who smashes up a public park because he can't help it.  But as my experience with my friends and family illustrates, letting kids off scott-free for petty vandalism seems to encourage it only the more.

I am not sure what got me started on this, only that, traveling across the country, you see a lot of people have done a lot of shitty things and apparently some folks have way too much time on their hands.  We talk about "guaranteed universal income" for people, but I wonder what that would really be like - people would have even more time on their hands to kill, and we know what places where welfare recipients congregate look like, over time - the vandals eventually deface everything.

Crime isn't funny, even if it is "victimless" crime (is vandalism victimless, or are we all victims of it?).  We need to stop this trend of excusing crime and criminals.  Sadly, a lot of well-off, middle-class, suburban people believe that criminals commit crimes to "put bread on the table for their children" and that the nice man who puts a gun in your face and steals your wallet is doing so only to feed his starving baby.  Such is not the case.  Criminals commit crimes when they make logical choice that they can get away with it, or if caught, the consequences would be trivial.

Since CoVid, a lot of criminals have been let out of jail.  Some re-arrested, are released with an appearance ticket.  Some are arrested more than once a day.  Particularly in places like California, it has become a bad joke.  And you, the working-class schmuck who can barely afford the property taxes and mortgage on his overpriced house is the bad guy because you "got lucky" and "have money".

This will all backfire in short order, as people seek law-and-order.  We saw this in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power more than two decades ago - people were willing to accept a strict religious theocracy as it was better than being shelled by warlords all day long.  And two decades later, they seem willing to accept it yet again - in place of the ineffective and corrupt government we tried to install as "Democracy".

This week, they are voting in California whether to recall Governor Newsom.  It looks like he will survive the recall, but then again, polls showed Hillary winning the 2016 election.  People may be tired of the touchy-feely wing of the Democratic party, and tired of having all their stuff stolen, their cars broken into, and generally being told that it is their fault for working hard and trying to save a buck.

While most folks still have a bad taste in their mouths over Trump, a lot of people still think he is God, and many more are willing to go along with him, if it wins elections for them.  Granted, this isn't a majority of the population, but throw in a few disaffected Democrats, and, well, you end up losing.  It is the issue Nixon ran on in 1968.  The GOP is gearing up to run on it in 2022 and 2024.  And the Democrats are handing them the issue on a silver platter!

And it all starts with a little vandalism...