The Psychology of Theft
One of my favorite passages from a novel, Assault on a Queen, seems a propos on the weekend during which a lot of people are doing their taxes. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s about a small group of people who hold up the great Queen Mary on the high seas and steal money from the first-class passengers. It’s told in the first person. Here’s the passage. The previous pages leading up to this quote are excellent too.
These people, Moreno and Lauffnauer had told me long ago sitting on the sand at Fire Island, were rich or close to it; or they had incomes twenty times bigger than the most I could ever hope to earn; otherwise they wouldn’t have been here. We’d be taking only the cash they had on them, and they could all afford that, and easily, Frank and Moreno had said. No one would miss a meal or a Cadillac.
It had sounded obviously true. I’d believed it. Now I wasn’t so sure. There’d been a man in a gray suit, wearing a vest with a gold watch chain stretched across it, and when I’d taken his money he’d said nothing, like most of the others, and passed on. But his eyes, as he moved past me, were sick, and for the first time it occurred to me that in robbing some of these people, I could be doing them a terrible harm.
He was the first, but there were others. There came one now, stepping up before me, a woman in her middle thirties, and unmarried, I somehow felt certain. She was frightened, she’d hung back till among the last, and she had her money in her hand, a roll of bills, and as I reached for it, her eyes went bleak. And I knew suddenly that this was a vacation trip she’d been saving years for, and that in my hand was all the money she had to spend on her trip. I glanced at Vic; he was busy, his hands running down the sides of a man’s coat. Then I thrust the bills back into the woman’s hands, and waved her on abruptly.
I understand very well how absurd this sounds; but nearly finished, with only forty or fifty passengers still on the side of the room facing us, I suddenly understood that I was a thief. But of course that doesn’t explain what I mean. Of course I’d known from the beginning that I was going to steal; and when you steal, you are a thief. Yet I hadn’t really known that at all. Now I’d actually done it; was nearly finished, in fact. There on the thick rug of the Queen Mary‘s lounge actually lay three gray-and-blue canvas sacks stuffed and lumpy with paper money. And behind me, their eyes on me, stood hundreds of living people from whom I’d helped steal it. I’d taken actual creased, soiled, and crisp new bills from leather wallets, from sweating hands, and from pockets whose cloth had brushed against my skin as my hand entered and left them; and my fingers were blackened from the dirt of those bills. There is a difference between knowing that stealing is wrong, and actually doing it; and the difference is enormous.
Let every man and women [sic] I robbed be rich, I was understanding. Let every one of them be easily able to afford every cent we’d taken. And let each of them be utterly undeserving of the money we’d taken from them. It was still true–and the words spke themselves in my brain again–the money still wasn’t mine.