Our nation of thieves
IN THE COZY bookstore cafes and bagelries of New Haven, scholars are complaining about the Yale library. Security guards, they say, are performing “excessive” bag checks and eyeballing them as though they were in a minimum-security prison. “What’s next,” asks one gray-haired mandarin, “a strip search?”
These discontents are rising to the surface because in June, E. Forbes Smiley III, a tweedy dealer of antiquarian books and maps, was charged with stealing $900,000 worth of rare maps from Beinecke Library. At Smiley’s arraignment on Aug. 8, he pleaded not guilty to three charges of larceny, even though the FBI pegs him as the Clyde of carto-maniacs, perpetrator of an international map-stealing spree.
At this point, no one has suggested a motive for the alleged map stealing. Before Smiley’s arrest, he was, to all appearances, a respectable map dealer with a reputation for helping libraries build their collections. But whatever becomes of Smiley the man, the Smiley affair throws into the light a larger, troubling story: We are in the middle of an epidemic of stealing.
If you read the newspapers, you see that hardly a day goes by without someone stealing something: maps, jewels, jeans, airline workers’ pensions, state secrets, Social Security, words, ideas or, the fastest-rising (and most post-modern) theft of all, identity. And nowadays, stealing caroms up and down the social spectrum, with CEOs and middle managers getting their hands dirty as well as everyone else. We have become a nation of thieves.
According to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a theft occurs every three seconds. (Your wallet is where?) Attendance is up at the National Retail Federation’s annual loss-prevention convention -- where store detectives learn how to quash theft. At the convention a few months ago, I learned how to steal identities using nail polish remover and Scotch tape -- and that $30 billion in merchandise disappears from stores yearly. What I did not learn was why so many are stealing.
The 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim described crime as an aspect of modern life, arising as a response to changing norms and inequalities. Perhaps theft has exploded today because an unparalleled number of such changes are being hurled at us.
The social roil and the economic pinch may relax our old-fashioned disapproval of stealing. The real estate boom, for instance, makes the prospect of money for nothing real for some of us. And file sharing lets all of us “own” music without paying for it. More of everything is available, in less codified ways.
Add to this our romantic notions about theft -- stealing as justice, a la Robin Hood, or stealing as a heroic quest. Stephane Breitwieser, the French “art kleptomaniac,” claimed his passion for art motivated him to snatch 239 paintings and rare musical instruments from museums all over Europe.
Another factor is the rise of the business culture and its corollary, consumerism, which advance the feeling that we are all -- even the most advantaged of us -- somehow not getting what we deserve, and that it’s only smart to go after what we want however we can. The executives and their collaborators at Worldcom and Enron weren’t just greedy, they felt entitled to steal.
Market forces make for a slippery slope in every business. Take Smiley’s case -- and I’m only speculating. Over the last decade or so, as antique map prices have skyrocketed, dealers vying for the business of the richest collectors have been known to ignore a map’s shady provenance; art thieves have been known to work for dealers. In other words, the market itself can create a crippling indifference toward theft.
Of course we acknowledge that greed and theft are sins. We were appalled at the shenanigans of Bernard Ebbers. For 10 minutes. But that doesn’t mean that our indifference toward theft isn’t real. It’s creeping into the way we describe it and the way we punish it too.
Shoplifting, for instance, is increasingly called “theft addiction.” Doesn’t turning theft into a disease just further normalize stealing? It means perpetrators simply cannot stop themselves. Next up: 12-step meetings for car thieves?
In New Haven, the Smiley case is making waves and making clear an uncomfortable truth: Thieves R Us. Maybe it will cause us to reexamine our love affair with stealing and even wonder whether that kind of love affair is worth having at all.