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Everybody’s a Criminal

If you read Ghostman, my debut novel that comes out tomorrow from Knopf, you'll probably notice one thing right away — I love facts. I'm a guy who digs the little things. The book is filled with crisp detail and practical minutia on a variety of criminal subjects, from the banking industry to the drug trade and everything in between. Ghostman, someone recently told me, is like reading a how-to guide to the modern art of bank robbery.

In the first few chapters, for example, I describe how to properly slurp up a bone of crystal meth and what happens when you drink a whole bottle of cough syrup. I talk about how the government prints, protects, and distributes all the new money it prints, and I describe the security features of a casino down to the cash cages. I let you know how to get rid of a body so it is never found, and I tell you how easy it is to shoot someone under a kitchen table using a silencer made only of simple household products. I even go on about the relative demerits of eating an entire jar of nutmeg (which is an exceedingly bad idea, by the way).

As a result of these details, people often ask me, "How do you know so many scary things about the life of a criminal?"

The answer is simple.

I am a criminal.

Does that surprise you? I hope so. It's not every day a writer goes on a very public blog and confesses to breaking the law. And, while I will invoke the Fifth Amendment regarding the specific laws that I've broken, I will tell you I've broken quite a few. I also have an ulterior motive behind this confession. I want to argue that not only am I a criminal, but I'm also willing to bet that you are one toonot only am I a criminal, but I'm also willing to bet that you are one too. In fact, almost everyone is.

Now, before you jump off on me for calling you a scumbag, I want you to know what I'm talking about. I'm not saying that you are a major, big-time, hardened criminal who should be locked up. No, not at all. Not everybody is a murderer, extortionist, molester, or kingpin gangster like the characters in my book. No. I'm saying something else entirely — that in this day and age, there are so many common parts of the human experience that are illegal, that virtually everyone of an adult age has broken, or routinely breaks, the law. I'm saying that, in the strict sense —

Everyone these days is a criminal.

Let's do a thought experiment. Take a minute to think about it. When was the last time you broke the law? Did you ever buy a bag of pot, even if it was just this one time during high school decades ago? If you're one of more than a 100 million Americans, you have. Ever bought, sold, consumed, or possessed any amount of any illegal drug? Have you ever taken or received somebody else's prescription medication for any reason? How about driving a car without your license and registration? Have you ever been drunk, naked, or loud in a public place? Pirated a movie or album or television show? Fibbed on your taxes? Shoplifted?

Source: Pwrm, Wikipedia

Millions of people do these things every day.

But it's easy to point to the endless, useless, expensive drug war, the expansive war-on-terror laws, the broken copyright system, or the incredibly vague public decency laws and come up with a thousand different ways they could turn a normal person doing normal things into a criminal. But perhaps you're one of the angels. Perhaps you're one of the very rare, unicorn-like people who has never broken one of the above laws. You've never bought, sold, or consumed an illicit substance; you've never illegally downloaded any art, movies, or music; you've never stumbled home from a bar (or, worse, driven); and you're always completely honest and squared away with the police and the IRS. Guess what?

You're still probably a criminal.

A lot of people break the law without even knowing it. In his book Three Felonies a Day, Harvey Silverglate describes how the criminal code has become so incredibly bloated and convoluted that a lot of people go about their days committing "crimes" without ever realizing it. And many of the statutes on the books are so vaguely worded that they could mean almost anything. You can read some really great examples on his site.

Okay, let's continue with the thought experiment. Now that you've remembered the last time you broke the law, let's think about the consequences. Odds are you weren't caught. Every day millions of Americans break the law, and only a very tiny percentage get caught. But do you know what the punishment is for that law you broke? If you possessed marijuana, for example, even a misdemeanor charge could get you a whole year in jail. Most people will never see the inside of a jail cell for such a charge, but, still, the law says you can get up to a year. Now imagine if you had done the maximum sentence for each and every crime you ever committed? How many years of your life would be gone?

This is why I say I'm a criminal — because like most people, the only thing that makes me different from the nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison is that I was lucky enough, or smart enough, or white or privileged or educated enough, to avoid getting caught. America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. A full 7.2 million people are under criminal supervision — more than 3 percent of all adults. We've become a country where almost everyone breaks the law. And when everyone breaks the law, the law has no threat of power. It ceases to be a punishment for wrongdoing and becomes merely a hazard, a random event of bad luck — like a heart attack or a hurricane — that could happen to anyone at any time for any reason. It is this lack of fear of punishment that separates the mind set of a normal man from that of a hardened criminal.

And these days, nobody's afraid.

÷ ÷ ÷

Roger Hobbs lives in Portland, Oregon, having graduated from Reed College in 2011 after majoring in English and studying ancient languages, film noir, and literary theory. Ghostman is his first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Ghostman
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds... New Trade Paper $17.95

Roger Hobbs is the author of Ghostman

3 Responses to "Everybody’s a Criminal"

    Gwen February 13th, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    This resonates rather large today, as the twenty-odd cars that illegally park around the local grammar school have started to grate. The school blocks the street right in front, so cars cut through an alley to park there. I spoke to someone today about not doing what she was doing. She retorted, with an eyeroll, "Everyone does it, so what." I suppose it will take someone getting hurt or killed to make anyone pay any attention at all, and then only for a day or two.

    Earl Bender February 14th, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Consider the term scofflaw. If you believe laws are wrongly conceived and you break these laws on purpose to make this point are you still criminal. Civil disobedience constitutes one such class of laws. Victimless crimes are another, perhaps grayer type of laws that millions of people break at least partly because they deem them wrong.

    Dave Plante February 21st, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    My favorite type of fiction is books that center around criminal protagonists. Probably the most revered of these characters is a guy called Parker created 50 years ago by Donald Westlake, writing under the alias Richard Stark.

    Parker is a heister, who will also kill a completely innocent person if they get in his way. It's his last resort, but if it's a choice of you or him, believe me, it's gonna be you. Some may wonder how I can enjoy fiction such as this, fiction that some could argue glorifies criminality.

    Mr. Hobbs comments are a good reason why; as he so eloquently states, we're ALL criminals in one sense or another. But even more so, I look at the crimes a bank robber or thief commit, then hold that up in comparison to the crimes our very own government has perpetrated, on it's own citizens no less, and suddenly the crimes of such "small fry" seem insignificant.

    From the inexplicable behavior of the Federal Reserve, to the CIA using unknowing American citizens as test animals, and everything in-between, I'm pretty certain the worst form of criminality is the one we blindly accept in complete zombi-fied obedience every day of our lives. The Parkers and Ghostmen of the world do their crimes in a much more honest and admirable way.

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