Story type: Essay
Many of us feel that crime is the striking feature of modern life, that this century sits among the skulls of crime’s victims, and that Father Time, after all his ages of travel, sees no improvement.
But those discouraged by modern crime misunderstand the meaning of events and fail to make a just comparison between the past and the present.
It is true that crime to-day is shocking in its frequency. Each day we see spread out before us murders.
But first of all remember this:
We often mistake widespread NEWS of crime for increase in crime itself. The newspapers are multiplied in number by tens of thousands, and they all tell what happens. It seems as though crime had increased, whereas in reality we have simply increased facilities for letting all the people know what goes on among us. —-
We are shocked occasionally by crimes of poisoning. Go back a few centuries and you find men and women making a regular business of selling poison to those who want to commit murder. The crimes that fill us with horror would not have been noticed in those days.
We hear of a father killing his own child, and we declare that humanity is going to destruction. Yet but a few centuries back and THE LAW RECOGNIZED EVERY FATHER’S RIGHT TO KILL HIS CHILD IF HE CHOSE.
We shudder when we hear that a mother has exposed a new-born child on a doorstep or thrown it into an ash barrel. That is a horrid and unbelievable crime.
But in Rome, before the days of Christianity, there were appointed places where mothers might legally expose their children to destruction. The wild beasts or dogs ate the children thus exposed, and no one was shocked. Whoever might care to take such an exposed child could keep that child for a slave forever. That kind of crime we have outgrown certainly.
The Presbyterian teaching of infant damnation seems to us horrible. We shudder at the statement that God would condemn a helpless baby to eternal punishment simply because it had not been baptized. The idea seems cruel now. But it was invented by the well-meaning early Christians in order to make women give up the legal practice of infanticide. The mother was made to believe that her unbaptized child went to hell, and that she must follow later on for not having had it baptized. Thus women were afraid to expose their children secretly, and infanticide was stamped out by a Christian doctrine which now seems so brutal. —-
And note one thing above all: Crime still lingers among us. But it is now LABELED AS CRIME. We no longer have horrible crimes sanctioned by law.
We read that a criminal has tortured some old man or woman for money–and then murdered the victim. We can scarcely believe in such atrocity. But only a little while ago–barely two centuries– IT WAS THE REGULAR LEGAL CUSTOM TO TORTURE OLD PEOPLE AND YOUNG.
Poor old women, falsely accused of witchcraft, were burned alive and ducked in this country, while clergymen and magistrates looked on and applauded.
All over Europe innocent witnesses could be tortured to make them give testimony at a trial.
Men accused of no crime whatever were tortured to make them give testimony against others–often when they had no testimony to give. They were hung up by the thumbs, the bones of their legs were crushed in a boot of steel, the soles of the feet were roasted over a brazier of red-hot coals–to make them help convict another.
The noble leaders of the French Revolution abolished such torture of witnesses in France, and they were criticised for doing so by the respectabilities.
“How are you going to convict criminals if you do not torture witnesses?” the respectable element asked. We have got beyond that state of affairs. We hear of murders based on jealousy– perverted affection. We hear of crimes based on envy–perverted ambition. All of the best elements in man, when perverted and thwarted, lead to crime.
And these perverted passions will continue to breed crime until men shall have learned to regulate society on a basis that will give full and natural play to the forces within us. But organized murder on a really vast scale is practically done away with.
Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon and others like them had great ambition. To gratify their ambitions they forced millions of men to die for them.
Human beings have protected themselves against the murderous ambitions of their great leaders.
The Napoleon of to-day must get a Congress to give him his soldiers.
Public opinion, the ballot and financial science have pulled the teeth of the greatest instrument of crime–the conquering army of ambition.
It is horrible to witness the assassination of a national leader.
The murder of McKinley or Carnot makes republican hopes seem chimerical.
But it must be remembered that not so long ago the head of a government who ESCAPED assassination was the exception. A few centuries back, and murder was the natural end of the average ruler. —-
Murder results first from control of the brain by animal passions. Almost every animal is a murderer, and at stated times murders its own kind. Primitive man is always murderous. Murder results, in the second place, from misdirected forces within us.
Crime will diminish through education, as the mind takes control of us, and through society better organized, which shall give men a chance to develop normally. Thanks to education and to improving social conditions, crime is disappearing, NOT increasing. Even our despondency is comforting. It proves that we have progressed so far as to be horrified at that which we should have taken for granted a few centuries back.