Category: Criminology

Monsters in Paradise

JotunheimenComing down out of Jotunheimen in the early morning hours, the crackling fragile ice of Nigardsbreen dropping behind us, we listened to Sigur Rós for the first time since leaving Iceland. I had taken a brief pulse of walk-around violence in Reykjavík before jumping in our 4×4 in the Thorsmork highlands and beating the poor beast down through 30 klicks of bad road and twelve random river fords, each fraught with mild uncertainty given that we didn’t have a snorkel on the Suzuki Jimmy manual (manual!). The BBC reported on the issue of violent crime in Iceland in an article by an American researcher who made the country the topic of his doctoral thesis. 90,000 guns in the hands of 300,000 citizens and nary a murder.

And Norway makes Iceland look quaint with its massive sovereign wealth fund that controls 1% of all securities worldwide. Social services, low levels of inequality, 4th highest GDP in the world, 48 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave–these are the features of a society that has chosen to follow the uniquely Scandinavian model of growth and peace.

But unlike Iceland, Norway joined its near-neighbor Finland in horrific style when Anders Behring Breivik murdered a whole bunch of kids who were involved in a summer program on a lake island northeast of Oslo. Karl Ove Knausgård wrote the definitive piece in the New Yorker on the events and aftermath of that day I need to write something else about Knausgård and his style of writing in both My Struggle and recent New York Times pieces titled My Saga, but the Breivik piece sums up something that is I think critical to our attempts to understand these horrific events. Basically, there is nothing that can be done. We can take away the guns, slowing people down or reducing their effectiveness. We can try to intervene early with troubled youth. We can overreact and put metal detectors in every corner of society.

I sometimes imagine a society where acts or potential acts of violence are impossible because there is an ever-present eye watching everything and everyone, but it is an impersonal watcher that processes the scenes for specific cues about threats rather than the panopticon of old. I feel safe and secure in this imagined world, and see stun-rays shooting Breivik as he emerges from his Oslo flat intent on detonating the first bomb. That future may happen yet, but it only can correct for and not explain the monsters in our paradises.

Experimental Positive Morality

Gated from Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, the Dutch experiments concerning the “broken window hypothesis” are illuminating. The “broken window hypothesis” dates to the 1980s when criminologists Wilson and Kelling suggested that broken windows in an abandoned building might signal other vandals that breaking windows is permissible. This theory, though widely disputed among criminologists, informed increased enforcement efforts in the United States in the 1990s that correlated with the amazing reductions in the crime rate that have continued into the current decade.

What of the Dutch experiments? When artificial circumstances are established where people can, for instance, litter fliers, people will litter more when they are in an environment already littered or surrounded by buildings covered with graffiti. Small acts of theft also are enhanced by a shady environment.

If our moral sentiments are so heavily influenced by our environment, we don’t need convincing that our moral predispositions are socially influenced, as well. Teenagers and college students are case studies.

But what of positive influences? If graffiti enhances criminality, and a neutral environment is, well, neutral, is it possible that a beautiful, inspiring environment would promote positive morality?

In many cities and towns, artistic murals are applied to high-graffiti areas with the expressed purpose of eliminating graffiti, for example. Can astonishing architecture do similar things? Following the Dutch experimental setup, it would be easy to place fliers on bicycles around art galleries and interesting buildings, then monitor the littering rates. There are obvious problems with this methodology in that the people who live and work in some areas may have educational, class, and other differences with those who traffic other areas that are more prone to littering and graffiti. Experimental design could help to uncoil those factors and establish whether we can get better when in better surrounds.