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Stupid, Possibly Part 2

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I’ve been thinking, since yesterday, about the different kinds of stupid people in the world, and I think that part of the problem is that we use the word “stupid” to mean two nt necessarily related things.

Certainly there is “stupid” as in “has no talent at learing things,” to turn the definition of “intelligence” upside down.  And the things we’re talking about in that definition are largely intellectual–math, history, the meaning of the essay “A Modest Solution.”

But even most of the people who have difficulty with that kind of thing know better than to behave like your average stupid criminal.  Take just one small issue: video surveillance cameras.

For years, I thought the security cameras were a little silly.  I mean, for God’s sake, they were right out there in the open.  Anybody with any sense would see them and disable them before they got started, or remember to wear ski masks or something so that they were of minimal usefulness.

The reality?  Not only does the average guy looking to rob the local bank ATM not disable the cameras, he doesn’t even seem to know they’re there.  He just hauls himself in with his face fully visible, goes at the ATM machine with precision burglar’s tools like a hammer and chisel, and then finds out that it’s pretty hard to pull one of these things out of the wall, and they’re heavy. 

Of course, the guys with the hammer and chisel are smarter than the guys who sho up with no idea at all how they’re going to get the machine out of the wall at all, or who decide to enter the lobby where the machine is by backing their pick-up truck right through the plate glass wall, putting themselves in the perfect position to get their license plate clearly recorded on that video camera they’re not paying any attention to.

But the guys out to rob the ATM are smarter than the ones robbing the local convenience store, because the ATM is at least likely to contain serious money.   Walking into the Quik-Mart with a baseball bat and demanding everything in the cash register usually nets about thirty dollars, if it nets anything at all.  And then there are those security cameras again.

You don’t have to spend you time watching World’s Dumbest Criminals to realize that the vast majority of crimes seem to be committed by people who would have a hard timne following an episode of Scooby-Doo–and that’s just as true of the violent, nasty ones.  Your average rapist-murderer is a man of opportunity and no self-control, not Dr. Moriarity.

In fact, nobody is Dr. Moriarity.  Even in situations that seem, on the surface, to be ripe for attracting intelligent criminals don’t.  Take Prohibition-era liquor and modern-day drugs.  You’ve got to have at least some intelligence to put together an operation like that.  It is, at base, a business. Even the low-level dealer on the street has to be able to figure profit and loss.

What do you get?  Idiots who sell everything from crack cocaine to knock-off AK-47s to the first undercover cop who shows up, and fearless entrepreneurs who blow up entire trailer parks trying to cook crystal meth in efficiency kitchens.

While so high themselves, they have a hard time finding the toilet without falling over.

It’s not just that your average classical murder mystery couldn’t be written from material like this.  It wouldn’t make a decent plot for a noir police procedural.   Ed McBain was the only person I ever read who tried to put real crime into police procedurals, and even he had to come up with one “smart” crime per book in order to have a book. 

The kind of crime I like to write about–and the kind of crime I like to read about–is far less interesting in the real world than we make it in fiction.  The wife who murders her husband for the insurance money, in real life, almost always takes out six insurance policies on him in the month or so before the crime.  Then she hires a hit man by putting an ad for one in the local classified.

I’m not making that one up.  That one actually happened.  Of course, the “hit man” who showed up was an undercover cop.  Who else would it be?

Maybe the key to all this comes with the motivation.  I never really did understand Moriarity’s motivation.  He seemed to be evil in order to be evil, without any clear reason for eing so. 

Most criminals in real life seem to be interested in getting some money as fast as they can get it, or acting out some inner drama of anger they don’t understand themselves, and thought would be mostly a hindrance to any of that.

But it gets a little depressing.

Consider my favorite Dumb Amateur Criminal of the Week:  early this past week, a 66 year old Deputy Attorney General in the state of  South Caroline was caught with an eighteen year old prostitue in a cemetary.  The arresting officer searched the car and found a big bag of sex toys, which clinched it.  Prostitute, sex toys–reasonable cause to think that something illegal was about to happen.

The  Deputy  AG protested vigorously.  That bag of sex toys was proof of nothing at all.  He always carried that bag of sex toys with him.  You know. “Just in case.”

I have to go listen to  Bach before my head explodes.

Written by janeh

November 1st, 2009 at 5:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Stupid, Possibly Part 2'

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  1. When I lived in a smaller centre, I heard that if the local police got a complaint about a theft, they simply paid a visit to whoever just got out of prison. That person would often invite them in, and either confess, or have the stolen object sitting out in the middle of the living room.

    We’ve just had a bunch of bikers convicted of murder. Now, bikers in Canada are generally considered to be about as nasty and vicious a bunch of thugs as you wouldn’t want to meet, particularly after they blew up a young boy walking past a car they put a bomb in as part of one of their interminable wars over the drug trade. Really, if more or less theoretically honest and decent people gave a moment’s thought as to where their money goes when they buy illegal drugs, they wouldn’t do it.

    Anyway, I would have expected that engaging in the import, export and distribution of drugs would require at least some intelligence as well as brutality. Not so, it seems. Eight of them were called in to a farm to ‘discuss’ yet another territorial dispute. It seems like it wasn’t actually planned for the discussion to turn to murder, although in that milieu that’s always a possibility, and that’s what happened. The killers don’t appear to have planned any method of disposing of the bodies, though. They were all found in their vehicles on a farm field 10 miles away. I mean, what would you expect the police to think? You have all these bodies of men with records associated with biker activities ten miles from the home of a notorious biker? Out in the country, where there are few houses? And of course, then you had a police informant and the guy who joined the bikers (and was involved in the murders) because he wanted to become a police informant!


    1 Nov 09 at 7:23 am

  2. Stupidity is afoot here in the ACT, too, and has been for a long time. Years ago, a well-known local businessman – he owned a liquor store and a rural property of some local significance – found that he was heading down the tubes financially so he decided to do something radical. To this end, he armed himself with a .22 rifle and drove his own car around to the local branch of a national bank where he did his normal business banking. He climbed out of the car, _then_ pulled a ski-mask over his head and marched into the bank with his rifle.

    Of course, he did this in full view of the passing parade, some of whom called the local cops who were on the scene within a couple of minutes. One cop walked into the bank with his gun drawn. Needless to say, our hero turned to face the cop and waved his rifle in a threatening manner and he may even have got off one hasty shot, although my memory fails me on this point. Also needless to say, the cop dropped him where he stood and he died before the paramedics could get to the scene. This was a hitherto successful business man well known and respected in the community. Suicide by cop? Maybe, but more likely just stupidity.


    1 Nov 09 at 10:07 am

  3. My favorite criminal remains a mid-western bank robber of some years past who regularly knocked over suburban branches back when there was still a little money in bank robbery. He turned out to be the owner of a local used car lot which was on the edge of bankruptcy, using the proceeds of his life of crime to sustain his honest business. I think only Donald Westlake could have made fiction of it.

    The stupidity–and the aversion to work–of the average criminal is certainly hard to overestimate. A state trooper told me once that he could bring in enough criminals to satisfy his superiors by stopping and calling in every car with the license plate crooked or held on by one bolt. Mostly, someone had stolen the car or used it in a robbbery, changed the plates, and never taken the 15-30 seconds to do it right. I think really it’s the attitude toward work which is the hallmark of the criminal. There are plenty of honest stupid people, and some of them are doing reasonably well.

    There is a third thing about the criminal, though. He’s also picked on. No one ever gave him a break. He’s been “dissed.” And anyway, she was just asking for it and he was looking at him funny.

    Years ago, Art Buchwald suggested that the problem with prison rehabilitation programs was the poor quality of the inmates. He may have had a point. (Buchwald recommended competitive examinations, like West Point.)


    1 Nov 09 at 11:12 am

  4. Have you ever seen that stolen car sting TV show? “Bait Car” or something like that.. The cops put a car into a neighborhood known for car thefts, just sitting there. Sometimes they’re locked, sometimes not. The inside is rigged with a couple of video cameras, and doors that lock on a radio signal. Of course the engine is disabled.

    So within a few minutes (I presume after this car is delivered by someone who could reasonably be recognized as an undercover cop) a set of joyriders or thieves hops in, tries to jack the car, and the doors lock “kachunk!” and hilarity ensues. Sometimes the cops let the losers drive a few feet before they disable the engine, just for confirmation they intended to steal it, as opposed to felony car-sitting I guess.

    One funny thing to me is the number of times these people run in groups…apparently car theft isn’t the solitary life you’d think. And the number of times that after a bit of thrashing and panic, the members of the group turn on one another. “I TOLD you not to pick this one!!”

    And there’s the incredibly consistent expression of wild-eyed triumph as they enter, like finally the universe has granted them their just due. In many cases they behave as if they’re proud of themselves, and express their contempt for the stupidity of the loser who left the car vulnerable to them. And then….once the trap springs and the panic fades, there’s an expression of hopeless resignation. Oh. The universe is in fact kicking my ass again. But it’s not my fault. No choice I made is responsible. It’s the fault of the damn police!! If they hadn’t left this car here, nothing would have happened!!

    Robert is right about the unwillingness of the criminal to contemplate honest work. They’ll be poor for months on end, until they can score, rather than just getting a job, that would end up profiting them more than knocking over any liquor store or convenience mart.

    I think it odd, and perhaps profound in a way I can’t quite express, that the prison rehab programs with the lowest rate of recidivism are those where the inmates work with animals. Training dogs or such. I wonder why?


    1 Nov 09 at 2:26 pm

  5. Maybe they pick the better convicts to participate in the dog programs. I’ve also heard that some murderers, the ones who aren’t into murder professionally or for sex or something, tend to have low recidivism rates, possibly because they’ve killed the only person who really angered them. I once read a book of studies of British murderers who were out on parole. It was quite interesting. I suppose the author chose a range of cases. Different motivations, different personalities, different levels of problems while on parole.

    It doesn’t really suprise me that young thugs (and not-so-young ones, like the motorcycle gang members) do things in groups. People do things in a group that they’d often never do as individuals. They egg each other on, and they want to fit in so they don’t want to argue with the leader about any bright ideas he might have about stealing cars.


    1 Nov 09 at 4:08 pm

  6. There are lots of types of cognitive functioning, but for our purposes let’s consider two broad categories: reasoning ability and executive functions. The underlying reasoning ability is the academic stuff. The executive functions–being able to delay gratification, plan ahead, consider consequences, etc.–are what is lacking in most criminals (that get caught). Executive functions are last to develop fully, and are the most vulnerable to things like alcohol, drug use, head injuries…well, everything. Plus you actually have to teach them and encourage them. See where I’m going with this?


    1 Nov 09 at 6:16 pm

  7. I can’t compete with the serious crime stories but there was a reality TV show last night about Australian Customs and Quarantine.

    Everyone entering Australia has to fill out a card. One of the questions is “Are you carrying any food?”

    A couple coming from India ticked NO and turned out to have a lot of food. Including a bunch of raw bananas. Now why would anyone bring bananas from India to Australia given that we grow our own and they are available all over the country?

    They ended up with a fine of $440 and the food confiscated and destroyed.


    1 Nov 09 at 9:27 pm

  8. And then there’s the stupid criminal who gets caught and gets away with it, more or less. Case in point near where I live: Deborah Lafave, Ms. “she’s too cute to go to jail.” A teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old student, got caught, case was to be telecast on Court TV, mother of victim didn’t want son subjected to this, so plea bargain was arranged. Deborah received no prison time, three years of house arrest, seven years probation and sex offender therapy. She has served 2 1/2 years of house arrest, including speaking to a 17 year old where she was worked and violation was not counted against her, and now may have unsupervised contact with children in her family. Apparently not only money but physical appearance can SOMETIMES effect the outcome in the criminal justice system.


    2 Nov 09 at 11:48 am

  9. I used to read Elizabeth Linington’s books – most written under the pseudonym Dell Shannon – procedurals that often focused on the “stupidity and cupidity of the common criminal.” Let’s face it, the average criminal is someone without any basic common sense.


    2 Nov 09 at 3:53 pm

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