Essay: Unlocking the Criminal in Us All

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Life was easier in the old days, wasn't it? people were friendlier, the weather was more reliable, films had a proper story to them, and there was hardly any crime. You could go out for the day and never think of locking the front door. Well, if anyone was in any doubt that those days are over in Australia, police in Sydney have set them straight. Last week officers began to enforce rule no. 213, subsection 4 (b), of the Australian Road Rules, whereby motorists are liable to a fine of $A68 for leaving their cars unlocked on a public road if the driver is more than 3 m from the vehicle. This obscure edict has resulted in the absurd sight of uniformed policemen slinking like joy-riders down rows of parked cars, discreetly testing the door handles. If the door opens, off they race to your house to menace you with the full majesty of the law.

Australians have long since grown inured to the intervention of the nanny state in matters that shouldn't concern it: to protect our heads, we are required to wear ridiculous bicycle helmets-so far, happily, only while riding-despite evidence that suggests they are ineffective; we risk a fine for walking across the street anywhere other than at a designated pedestrian crossing; we are resigned never to eat cheese made with unpasteurized milk, although generations of Frenchmen seem to have survived the encounter. So was this just the latest stratagem, designed perhaps to prevent dogs sneaking into cars to suffocate in the heat of summer, or to halt an unreported spate of runaway vehicles whose handbrakes had been released by malevolent intruders?

It would be funny if it weren't so serious. Last week, without any fanfare, we moved from the customary witless meddling of our underemployed and overcompensated legislators-who at least used to be able to argue that government was intervening to save us from ourselves-to a more sinister situation, where to protect the innocent from becoming victims of crime, they are turned into criminals themselves.

A New South Wales Police Service spokesman, citing high levels of car theft, said the measure "is about reminding car owners to be a bit responsible about their vehicles." Paying $68 to be reminded that theft exists is rather like opening the door to a policeman who punches you in the face and says: "Remember, common assaults can take place when you least expect them." If the police are so poorly resourced that they are unable to cope with the level of motor-vehicle theft, they should hand the problem over to the insurance companies. They wouldn't be long in devising effective incentives and reminders for their policyholders.

Of course, right-minded citizens should applaud anything that lightens the policeman's load (and there can be no doubt that officers will find it easier to catch motorists dozing in front of their televisions than to track down the country's car thieves). But if that's the government's intention, they've gone nowhere near far enough. There are lots of crimes-some of them, it might be argued, more serious than unlocked cars-that the police are too busy to attend to, at least according to published clear-up rates. So let's broaden the application of this new victim-as-criminal principle.

We can begin by rehabilitating those visionary judges we vilify as out of touch when they suggest women in short skirts are asking to be raped. Not only are the strumpets asking for it, they should be punished for putting the idea in the poor rapist's mind. The answer to sexual assault is to make it an offence to dress provocatively. The Taliban have the right idea: forget the sunblock, let's see the burkah on Bondi beach.

Why do we waste our efforts in catching and trying to reform criminals? It's the law-abiding citizen who should be the real target of our crime-fighting efforts. Old-style criminals, almost by definition, find it difficult to resist temptation, so let's make it a new-style crime to offer it. Stop opportunistic thieves by forbidding women to hang their handbags over restaurant chairs; end street robbery by banning the use of ATMs; arrest anyone who wears expensive clothes or jewelry, or lives in a big house just begging to be burgled. Let's strip all the seductive signs of wealth from our society.

And while we're at it, let's strip away the last vestiges of trust. Civilized society operates on the assumption that the majority of citizens are trustworthy. It is the lubricant of everyday intercourse; it is one of the things that separate us from the animals. To punish innocent people for trusting their neighbors is one of the most dishearteningly cynical acts a government is capable of; an official declaration that what little faith we retain in our fellow man is ill-founded.

No wonder people cast their eyes back to the good old days. But they should remember that while tomatoes did indeed taste like tomatoes then, the rosy spectacles of nostalgia can distort the real picture. Maybe there was a lot more crime around than we knew, and the old-time coppers just weren't as smart as their highly trained modern counterparts. Why, think of all those inviting front doors: it may seem hard to believe, but none of the villains who left them unlocked was ever prosecuted.