What is a “Crime” and Who is a “Criminal”?


 I just read a commentary by Andrew Greeley from the Chicago Sun Times called “No Peace On Earth During Unjust War” (click on “In the news” on this my web page) and I felt compelled to send this to several people I know, both criminologists and others.  I also felt compelled to write about this.  It will be my last commentary for the year.

            What is unique about the piece by Greeley (as noted by the editors of Znet, who reproduced this) is that it appeared in a mainstream newspaper.  Znet noted that this demonstrates the “dissolution of mainstream support and even silence” about this war. 

            Greeley states: “One reads in the papers that the Pentagon expects the war in Iraq to continue till 2010. Donald Rumsfeld will not guarantee that it will be over by 2009. How many dead and maimed Americans by then? How many sad obituaries? How many full pages in the papers with pictures of all the casualties?”  Noting that all the reasons given for the war (WMD’s, etc.) have been totally discredited, Greeley says: “This cockamamie and criminally immoral war was planned before the Sept. 11 attack in which Iraq was not involved. It has nothing to do with the war on terror. American-style freedom and democracy in Arab countries are hallucinations by men and women like Paul Wolfowitz and Condi Rice whose contribution to the war is writing long memos -- Republican intellectuals with pointy heads.”

            In a recent interview Noam Chomsky (“Civilization Versus Barbarism?”- http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=11&ItemID=6925), observes that perhaps as many as 100,000 Iraqis have died during our invasion, which dwarfs the estimated 3,000 who died on 9/11.  So who’s the “terrorist”?  Talking about the US invasion of Nicaragua (ironically on September 11, but in 1973) Chomsky observes that the World Court called this a “crime” but it was forced to deal with this case “on extremely narrow grounds, just bilateral Nicaragua-US treaties, and customary international law. Nevertheless the Court condemned the US for what it called unlawful use of force, gave a pretty broad judgment, well beyond the actual terms of the case, ordered the US to terminate the crimes, pay substantial reparations. The US ignored the ruling, vetoed two Security Council resolutions affirming it, and went on with the war.”

            As once noted by the famed duo Sutherland and Cressey, the field of criminology is about the study of the making of laws, the breaking of laws and the response to the breaking of laws by the criminal justice system or words to that effect.  I’ve always wondered why mainstream criminology has not spent more time examining the first of these three.  After all, the “making of laws” determines what is considered a “crime” and thus the subject matter of criminologists.  What has always been missing from this definition is what is known as “crimes of the state.”

Recently criminologists Ron Kramer and Ray Michalowski (in a forthcoming article entitled “War, Aggression, and State Crime: A Criminological Analysis of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq”) note that “the study of state crime must include governmental acts that violate international law even when they do not violate domestic law.”  The US invasion of Iraq constitutes a violation of “the U.N. Charter and the international rule of law.”  In short, it is a crime of huge proportions.  They base this in part upon the logic that “although debates may exist over its universality, existing international law has been accepted as law by most nations of the world - including the United States – and thus, violations of these laws are criminal wrongs under the existing international legal order.”

            More than 30 years ago criminologist Richard Quinney said that criminal laws “describe behaviors that conflict with the interests of the segments of society that have the power to shape public policy.  In almost every class I teach I write on the blackboard the following: “The labeling of behaviors as criminal is an exercise in power.  Those with the most power and resources at their disposal are the least likely to have their behaviors defined as criminal.”  This is nothing more than a re-phrasing of what Quinney wrote in his The Social Reality of Crime (originally published in 1970 and recently reprinted by Transaction Books).  Criminologists would do well to pick up this book and read it again.

            So what is my point here?  It is really very simple.  There are a multitude of human behaviors that result in some kind of harm to other humans.  “Crime,” however, is “socially constructed” as Quinney noted.  The crimes we read about in the papers and those that are officially counted by the FBI in its annual report Crime in the United States are that “reality” that is “socially constructed.”  Other than occasional scandals (like Enron), crimes committed by multi-national corporations are rarely reported in the newspapers (except perhaps the Wall Street Journal or Business Week – and such crimes are typically considered as “aberrations” rather than “business as usual”) and almost never on the 6 o’clock news.  Yet these crimes cause at least 100,000 deaths each year and about $1 trillion in damages.  In short, the biggest crooks and the truly “dangerous” occupy positions of power and privilege.  You won’t find them in jail or prison.  Nor will you find them being studied by criminologists with grants from the federal government.  The feds pay us to look at the crimes of the powerless.

            When it comes to crimes of violence, we should not be looking at the latest “drive-by shooting.”  We should be looking deep into the bowels of government, and more specifically those who order invasions of other countries, mostly in the name of protecting “American interests” – which amounts to the interests of multi-national corporations pursuing their profits.  Do you see any connections here?  Such as the connection between corporate crooks and government crooks?  No wonder they don’t want us to study them!  Has anyone even tried to get a grant to study state crime?  In recent years a group of criminologists have formed a special committee to study corporate crime, but I wonder how far they will look.  Will anyone see the connection I am talking about here?  Perhaps some will.  But how far will they get if they pursue such a course?  Not very far I suspect.  After all, we all have bills to pay.  And we get paid pretty well to “look the other way.”

            What should be done?  I have a simple answer.  I recall something said in one of my undergraduate classes that has remained with me to this day.  Ironically, it was stated by a baseball coach who was teaching one of those classes you often take to pick up one or two easy credits to qualify for graduation.  The class was called, believe it or not, “Theory of Baseball” or something like that.  One day the coach said that during a game you must “assume nothing.”  Those were his exact words as I recall.  What this means to me is that we as criminologists, and as citizens too, must question everything and take nothing for granted, including statements by those in positions of authority and power.  When I mention this to my students I even instruct them to “assume nothing” that I say in class!  Question me but then go search for answers yourselves. (This is called “critical thinking” by the way, which is something most people rarely engage in.) Far too many criminologists accept the traditional definitions of crime and go about their business studying the crimes of the powerless (the data they examine often come from huge “data banks” on arrests by police, jail and prison populations, etc. collected by other researchers – is there a “data bank” on corporate or state criminals?  Stupid question!).