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 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?
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.