Posts tagged with: crime

When thinking of southern Italy, Americans probably imagine the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius, and lemon groves, but to the average Italian the picture is of rotting garbage in the streets of Naples and the Mafia. These realities have been strikingly portrayed in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra (ET), which is also the basis of a newly-released motion picture in Italy.

Saviano is a young journalist who clearly describes the dark side of his country. It is probably the most courageous “j’accuse” ever cried out against the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. In order to write this book, the author disguised himself, took on another identity and infiltrated “The System”, as the Camorra is known in Naples.

Saviano’s reporting has won several awards. His book has been translated in 42 countries and has been a best-seller in Germany, Holland, Spain, France, Sweden and Finland. The New York Times classified it as one of the best books of 2007 and The Economist added it to its list of 100 best books of 2008. In Italy, it is considered the best book of the year and has sold over a million copies.

In chilling passages, the author explains the power of the organization and names the families, alliances, trafficking, corruption and misery surrounding the Camorra’s world. It is a shocking picture, even for those Italians who are well-aware of the criminal organizations infesting Italy. These corrupt networks seem impossible to defeat, a parallel country within the country.

It is incredible to recount the Camorra murders in Naples, nearly 4,000 in the last 30 years, numbers that can be compared to a war. Even more astonishing are the figures concerning the economy of this international organization that, together with the other criminal organizations, accounts 7 per cent of Italy’s gross domestic product, more than $127 billion in a year.

The historic, political and social reasons that have lead to this phenomenon can be summarized in one word: “corruption”. Never in any other European country has there been such a wide scale and longstanding connection between crime and political corruption.

But thanks to this book and civic movements that are starting to rebel against this kind of society, Italians are developing a deeper awareness of the problem. The film version of Gomorra has gotten off to a great start at the box office, with more than €2 million in ticket sales in less than three days.

The movie brilliantly summarizes the book and is courageously filmed in Scampia, the dangerous Neapolitan neighborhood where the story takes place. The movie is also showing at the Cannes Film Festival where the international press applauded Saviano’s courage and the courage of Italians like Saviano (who has been living with constant police protection since October 2006) who courageously face truth and stand up to crime and corruption.

This sounds like a book with a compelling narrative: McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.

I’ve often thought about the connection between organized crime and legitimate governmental structures. In the NPR interview linked above, “Journalist Misha Glenny points out that while globalization may have given the world new opportunities for trade and investments, it also gave rise to global black markets and made it easier for criminal networks to do business.” There’s a lot of cogent analysis of trade issues and how government policy not only combats but also contributes to the existence of globalized “black markets.”

It has occurred to me more than once, in watching shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos,” that a good deal of the socio-political aspects of organized crime is explicable in terms of alternative (and often obsolete) forms of governance. That is, often when extorting money from business owners, superficially legitimate services are offered, like “protection,” i.e. protection that the official authorities like the police are unwilling or unable to provide.

Can Tony Soprano claim to be the “king,” or at least “kingpin” of a more feudal or monarchical socio-political structure? Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the hypothetical exceptional situation in which the “outlaws” represent a more legitimate form of governance than official but tyrannical structures (think of Robin Hood, for instance).

But there is at least clear precedent for understanding the reverse to be true; legitimate authorities can certainly degenerate into outright banditry even if bandits may not be able to rise to the level of authentic sovereignty. As Augustine has reflected on the nature of legitimate sovereignty,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

And so the appeal to political legitimacy can only be made in recognition of the rule of law, the higher law or the “law beyond law,” that governs all human endeavors.

Blog author: jarmstrong
posted by on Thursday, March 1, 2007

I have discovered this week that Florida has a major problem with teenage violence against the homeless. In a new twist on violent crime incidents the homeless are being attacked across this state regularly. In St. Petersburg two homeless men, ages 43 and 53, were shot to death in January in separate incidents. The two men indicted for these two crimes are 18 and 20. There were 41 incidents of violence against the homeless in 2006, more than in any other state. Eight of these led to deaths. A man was beaten to death in August by two teens, ages 13 and 16. Last April a homeless man in DeLand claimed ten teens attacked him with metal pipes and set his tent on fire.

The staggering thing about this new wave of crime is the most common reason being cited for the attacks. An online survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless says 55% of the teens involved report “boredom” is the most common reason. 47% of people surveyed say such teens should face adult penalties for these crimes. I concur.

“Boredom?” Yes, boredom. It has become a major problem in a culture based on non-stop entertainment and the perceived personal right to pleasure no matter what it costs. And still people do not think we have a values problem in America. What we actually have is a virtue problem, which is far worse. Virtue begins in the home but the whole society undermines the pursuit of virtue by its endless rush toward secularism and hedonism. Bored kids, in modern America, are apparently now dangerous to the homeless and the helpless. This is another sad evidence of how deep our need is for true moral reformation.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.