There’s a scene in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” in which Moore argues with a producer of “Cops.” What would happen, Moore asks him, if instead of chasing after small-time criminals, “Cops” showed police officers walking into corporate office buildings and putting the handcuffs on executives.
Moore’s suggestion may be over the top, but he raises a legitimate point. Why are we more comfortable watching police officers go after a drunk or a deadbeat than a corporate player, whose crimes likely have greater implications for society?
We tend to think of crime as something we see on the evening news – the random stabbing, robbery, shooting or arson, represented by the bewildered, unshaven man in the mug shot. We talk about crime rates as an amalgamation of things done by people whom we’d otherwise overlook. Crime is associated with deviance – with disobeying orders and acting out.
But criminality is not the exclusive domain of deviants. Institutions and governments – and individuals working within them – also break the law, kill or injure people and destroy resources and property. Sometimes these so-called “white collar” crimes are prosecuted, and sometimes people face punishment. Less often are institutions themselves interrogated or held accountable. And when policy makers talk about reducing crime, rarely do they focus on the crimes of those who hold and abuse power.
We have a stake in associating criminality with rebels. If criminals are those not playing by the rules, then our assumptions about what those rules are can remain intact. But we have a harder time identifying crime when it goes on within institutions, among people who are following orders. To do so would be to call into question the stability and legitimacy of the foundations of our society and our understanding of the law itself.
So while we can all agree, for example, that a contract between two people is legally binding, public opinion is divided over whether the U.S. government must abide by the treaties it has signed. While the owners of a nursing home can be held criminally negligent for abandoning their charges during a hurricane, the federal government faces no similar consequences for abandoning an entire city. And while war tax resistors can be sent to jail for defrauding the government, no American leader has gone to jail for the $5 billion lost to fraud each year in Iraq reconstruction efforts.
These analogies aren’t perfect, but they beg the question, at what point are institutions immune from the law? And what are the consequences of failing to hold them accountable?
Some of these consequences are all too clear. They can be seen in the devastation in Iraq and the Gulf Coast, in polluted rivers and melting ice caps, in contaminated food and lost savings.
But there are also consequences that are harder to see - consequences for corporate culture and the expectations that we have of our political and economic leaders. When we downplay the significance of white collar crime - and embrace the sensationalism of “Cops” and the evening news - we create an environment in which the marginalized become criminals and the powerful get off scot-free.