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JUSTICE: Crime & Scandal | April 11, 1986


An Unpublished Letter to Los Angeles Times

Desperate people do desperate things.

In South Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines, Central America, and our own United States, poverty -- that extreme scarcity of food, shelter, clothing, health care, and/or hope -- naturally motivates many powerless people to take extreme measures in the hope of improving their dire straits. Like a cornered animal, a person whose back is against the wall will do things that would normally go against his or her nature. Who among us could guarantee that we would not do everything in our power -- legal or otherwise -- if we or our family were starving, homeless, filthy, or ill -- regardless of who was to blame -- and if we saw in the powers-that-be no realistic hope of solving our problems? Is it a sin to steal if you are starving?

Although the debates about the theoretical link between poverty and crime have gone on forever, few of us would choose to live in a poor neighborhood -- the crime rate is usually high. There are more gangs in the ghetto or barrio than in the suburbs or "fashionable" communities (Isolated outbursts of violence by affluent youths, as in Palm Springs over Spring Break, are the notable exceptions that prove the rule). And there is more terrorism breeding among the otherwise powerless, impoverished peoples of the Middle East, often exploited by opportunistic politicians, than there is in more affluent nations (Although the growing poverty, especially among the young, in our nation should give us pause -- are we breeding native terrorism, as surfaced during the general activism of the sixties?).

Violence, whether by a destitute, otherwise powerless streetperson-turned- criminal or refugee-turned-terrorist or by a well-supported, well-trained police or military force, is thankfully usually the means of last resort; and violence, by anyone, against innocent men, women, and children is, of course, wrong.

But who amongst us will "cast the first stone" against black rebels oppressed in South Africa; against Palestinian refugees confined to squalid camps in the Middle East; against small farmers misled, tricked, or forced off their family land, often by huge landowners, in the Philippines or in Central America or in the U.S.A.; or against human beings who live in the streets or in the ghettos and who, because of ignorance or skin color or whatever reason, have one devil of a time keeping from being un- or under-employed (which denies not only them but also our economy as a whole the fruits of their labors)?

If we truly deplore crime and terrorism, let us not concentrate first and foremost on providing "pounds of cure" -- more police and prisons, more military and their expeditions. We must instead concentrate most on the "ounces of prevention" (which in the long-run are probably less expensive, in terms of both dollars and anger invested) -- honestly encouraging local to international agriculture, for food; construction, for shelter; manufacturing and trade, for clothing and other needs; scientific research, for health care and other physical and mental needs; and education, for realistic hope.

If we do not work to drastically reduce poverty, the root cause of most local crime and international terrorism, we will be wantonly wasting valuable human resources. And even more desperate people will do even more desperate things.

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