Robbers, radar, and rocket sales: a parable for our time

Imagine, if you will, a society in which bank-robbing has become an extremely popular sport. All sorts of people, some of them the very pillars of their communities, engage in it. It's a common topic around dinner tables. It commands attention in newspaper columns and radio talk-shows. And it spawns countless ``how-to'' books and articles. The police, not surprisingly, begin to show great concern, and in fact become rather good at stopping robberies. Actually, they aren't very good at nipping them in the bud before they're committed. Nor are they good at tracking down the robbers who get away. What they are good at is apprehending thieves in flagrante delicto, red-handed and in the very thick of the robbery.

So you can imagine that there might arise, in this society, certain entrepreneurs who see ways to aid the poor, struggling robbers. They discover that what most crimes lack is a means to alert the robbers that the police are coming. As it happens, the solution is rather easy: In this society, police cars always emit a peculiar smell. So the entrepreneurs - clever devils that they are - invent tiny, electronic smell-detectors that robbers can wear inconspicuously on their black-leather jackets. They market them under various names - FuzzSniffer, StinkBuster, Micro Smell, Bankerono, and the like. They advertise them widely by direct mail and in the most popular magazines. Known generically as ``police smell detectors,'' they become all the rage: People who insist that they themselves never rob banks give them to one another as Christmas presents and wear them proudly on their clothes.

And not surprisingly, the number of bank robberies grows and grows.

How to combat the problem? There are various ways. You could, of course, simply make bank-robbing legal. Or, if you feel that some shred of social order needs to be preserved and that laws really ought to be enforced, you could clamp down on the smell-detectors themselves. You could go after the manufacturers - charging them with being accessories to the crime, with using the mails to defraud, with obstructing justice, with promoting crime, and with various other illegalities. And you could make it illegal to purchase or use a smell-detector. Whatever you did, you would probably be clear on one thing: that a society that made bank-robbing this easy is in real need of help.

Now, reader, does this parable strike you as strange - a tale from never-never land with no relevance to the present? It shouldn't. It's a tale from modern America. The crime is not bank-robbing but speeding on the nation's highways. The devices don't detect smell but police radar. And the victims are all around us.

Oh, they're not ``victims'' in the usual sense. There's not a whole lot of evidence that the cars that whiz along the nation's interstates at 80 miles per hour - speeding with impunity, with their little black dashboard-mounted detectors ever alert to police radar - cause great numbers of accidents. Whether speeds faster than 55 miles per hour are safe is another issue.

No, the victimization here is of a different sort. The nation, it would seem, has fallen victim to a kind of creeping moral turpitude. For surely a society that sets about willfully, skillfully, and with tremendous inventiveness to break its own laws - to the point of tolerating full-page ads in glossy magazines for devices that have no other purpose than to assist law-breakers in eluding detection - has somehow faltered in its sense of ethics.

One can, of course, already hear the spluttering of the pro-detector lobby - a group that, when somebody last counted, represented a $200 million industry. These devices, they howl, are nothing more than radio receivers - and outlawing radio receivers is a violation of the freedom of the airwaves and a sure sign of creeping socialism. Besides, drivers need a level playing field against the sophistication of the police, whose radar guns are sometimes miscalibrated and who sometimes trap those who weren't speeding.

If one can say ``baloney'' politely, this is the time to say it. What underlies these arguments is a sentiment even more troubling than the arguments themselves: that ``legality'' is synonymous with ``not being caught,'' and that life is a kind of dungeons-and-dragons game between the law-enforcers and individual wrong-doers. The basic assumption here - a cynical and devastating one for any society trying to maintain its balance - is that man is essentially crooked, that success can only come from escaping the limitations of the law, and that the best epitaph is, ``He was never caught.''

What does all this have to do with the larger issues of the day? Look again at the present crisis besetting the Reagan administration. Look again, and ask yourself how a society that blithely accepts the willful breaking of one sort of law - the highway speed code - can expect that other sorts of law - like those governing the sales of rockets to Iran - will somehow remain sacrosanct. Look again, and ask whether it should surprise us that some of the nation's officials actually do represent the nation - that they express, with great accuracy and on a large scale, the very same moral fuzziness that some of the electorate expresses on a small scale.

Don't misread this parable: Wiping out police radar detectors won't solve the arms-sales problem. What must be wiped out is the mindset that vigorously asserts its right to behave illegally. To tackle that mindset at the individual level is to send the kind of moral signal that will help set the entire nation back on track.

A Monday column

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