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Has the Current Global Recession Exposed Innate Flaws in Humans?

Sun, 21 Jun 2009 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

That every nation under the sun is dealing with the effects of a global recession cannot be overemphasized. That many citizens of all societies under the sun have been pelted with the pebbles of destitution and deprivation cannot be overemphasized. That many otherwise decent citizens of all societies under the sun have engaged in one sordid activity after another for survival cannot be overemphasized. That these otherwise decent citizens of all societies under the sun chose to engage in reprehensible acts for money and resources to provide for themselves and their families is what many have found mindboggling, unnerving and lamentable. That there is the need to understand why humans behave in certain ways under certain conditions is what I am attempting to explore via this article.

Several months ago, a man laid off from work due to the present recession arrived home only to discover that his wife had also been laid off the same day. Of course, the fact that they had five children to feed became a source of apprehension for this couple. What did the man do next? He took the most horrendous of steps to end the family’s troubles: death to everyone, including himself. The man simply went out, purchased a gun, returned home later that evening, shot his wife and children, and then turned the gun on himself. In a suicide note, the man begged the members of his community to forgive him, but insisted that it was better to take all seven lives than depend on unemployment benefits or the generosity of others. Somehow, we can all imagine how those children had felt, with a gun in their faces, shortly before their lives were forcibly taken by, perhaps, the person they had trusted more than any other in their short lives!

In May 2009, a would-be robber could not get a convenience store clerk in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to open the cash register for him, so he “lifted his shirt to show he had a pistol tucked in his waistband” (msnbc.com, 2009). Still, the store clerk would not budge, but rather gave the man $40.00 from his own pocket. In response, the man explained to the clerk that he needed the money to purchase insulin. (The robber was likely a diabetic.) So, why would an ostensibly decent man rob a convenience store, even if for money to purchase a life-sustaining drug? Could he not have gone to his community’s public health care center for help? Would he have acted so audaciously had he thought about the consequences of being caught? I hope that the ethicists can help explain the robber’s rationale to the reader.

Ellensburg, Washington: Perhaps one of the saddest cases associated with the current economic downturn is the story of a robber who held up a convenience store with his 9-year-old daughter in tow. (If this story does not break your heart, then I am not sure what will.) A review of the store’s surveillance video would show the robber explaining to the store “clerk [that] he [was] unemployed and need[ed] money to support the girl” (msnbc.com, 2009). In a twist of fate and shortly after the heist, the robber would leave his daughter with the father of a local sheriff’s deputy, with whom he was acquainted, as the robber, who was now on the run, was unprepared to surrender to the authorities. Even as the girl was taken into protective custody by law enforcement officials, the questions remained: Why did the robber do it? And why did he bring along an innocent little girl? How traumatized is that girl today? Why did he risk his reputation and freedom to steal a paltry $200.00? I hope that the ethicists can help explain the robber’s rationale to the reader.

New York: A few months ago, Mohammad Sohail thought he was hallucinating when a man walked into his convenience store “wielding a baseball bat and demanding money” (CNN.com, 2009). Instinctively, Mr. Sohail grabbed his unloaded gun and ordered the would-be robber to drop his bat or risk being shot (of course, the would-be robber did not know that the gun was not loaded!). Now scared for his life, the would-be robber would oblige and drop to his knees, explaining to the store owner, in the process, that he had neither money nor food to feed himself and his family. Filled with compassion, the store owner, who later said that he would not press charges even if the would-be robber was eventually caught, gave the man “$40 and a loaf of bread” (CNN.com, 2009). He also got the would-be robber to promise to never engage in such a sordid act again. So, why did this man risk humiliation, possible arrest and/or jail time to attempt to rob a store? I hope that the ethicists can help explain the would-be robber’s rationale to the reader.

New York: In what Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes described as the mother of all crimes, in terms of creativity, Thomas Parkin, a 49-year-old local resident, was dressing up as his dead mother for 6 years before anyone knew why: Parkin had perfected the art of posing as his 77-year-old late mother – in documents and in appearance – and had claimed Social Security payments and received city rent subsidies for years, before authorities discovered his modus operandi. For example, in April 2009, Parkin went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and renewed his deceased mother’s driver’s license, “wearing a blonde wig, a red sweater, sunglasses and a scarf around the neck” (CNN.com, 2009). When questioned about his bizarre behavior, Parkin would defend his action: “I held my mother when she was dying and breathed in her last breath, so I am my mother” (CNN.com, 2009). Whew! I hope that the ethicists can help explain this shameless criminal’s rationale to the reader.

Although criminologists and sociologists have long believed that there is a positive correlation between a recession and crime, an increase in crime across the board may actually be difficult to combat, even as U.S. cities and states struggle to fund their police departments and units. According to Cynthia Osterman of Reuters, “Of 233 police agencies surveyed … in the United States, 44 percent reported a rise in certain types of crime they attributed to the [nation’s] worst economic and financial crisis in decades. [And] of the 100 agencies [that] linked crime rises to the economic crisis, 39 percent said they had seen an increase in robberies, 32 percent an uptick in burglaries and 40 percent an increase in thefts from vehicles.”

So, why do some buckle so easily in the face of hardships, whereas others would rather starve than commit a crime? Why would some risk life and limb – theirs and their victims’ – for a loaf of bread and/or a handful of dollar bills? Do we all have snap-points innately embedded in us and ought to be tested beyond the ordinary before we know what our true endurance levels really are? Are some born with the propensity to commit crime? What role does environment play in the dexterous proclivity to engage in crime? I hope that the ethicists among us can help provide answers to these thorny questions.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.