Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In Praise of Stupid Criminals

They’re not only entertaining, they create jobs

If you spend any time at all in the news business, you begin to collect a list of favorite stories.  It’s a cinch that some of them will fall into the category of “stoopid criminals.”

Really, it’s no surprise that some street thugs might, on occasion, show less than stellar judgment, or display organizational and planning skills that fall short of greatness.  After all, rare is the criminal who got into that line of work because he’d grown bored with his job as a rocket scientist.  A low IQ combined with a high desire to prey on others is a formula guaranteed to result in news coverage sooner or later.

And that’s why almost any news professional can recite a list of favorite stoopid criminal tricks.  Near the top of my list is the brain donor who tried to break into a convenience store one night by hacking through the roof, only to get stuck in the ceiling.  And there he remained, with his feet dangling over the agonizingly out-of-reach cash register, until the morning shift clerk arrived and got the fire department to come out and perform an idiotectomy on the building.  Then there’s the valedictorian who dropped his wallet, complete with his ID, while jumping through a window in the aftermath of a home invasion.  A group of Rhodes Scholars in Florida wondered what was in one particular pipeline that ran through their neighborhood and whether it would be possible to tap into it.  The answers were “anhydrous ammonia” and “not really,” and the price of this knowledge was the destruction of their lungs and the evacuation of the neighborhood.  One legend of thought in Texas saw no problem with utilizing an aluminum extension ladder in his effort reach a utility company transformer and tap into it; I’ll leave it to the reader to guess what part of his lower anatomy closed the circuit and was blown off.  And who could forget the team of Mensa members who, in the dead of night, physically ripped a store ATM machine off its foundation, drove it out to the countryside, affixed a heaping helping of dynamite to it, and then proceeded to blow the device, and its cash, to tiny bits.  The list goes on.

But there’s no question about what incident tops my personal Moron Hit Parade.  Although it happened many years ago, it’s never had any real competition.  Herewith is that tale.

So these three young bad guys are sitting around the crack house one day, or whatever it is that bad guys sit around, when they decide they've been idle long enough and it's time for gainful employment.  They kick it around for a while and eventually agree on a schedule of activities involving armed robbery and a stolen getaway car.  They had one particular business in town that they figured would be ripe for the picking. 

Care to guess what kind of business it was?  Here’s a hint:  They couldn't have picked a worse target.  No, it was not the police station.  It was worse.  No, not the FBI office.  Worse than that, even.  No, not the local Texas Ranger’s office, though that might have ranked almost as high on the inverse intelligence scale.  Give up?  Read on.

In order to protect the guilty we’ll use pseudonyms for our three freaks of mental prowess.  The names “Larry, Curly and Moe” are tempting, but lacking in irony.  Let’s call them Leonardo, Isaac and Albert.

So, into the targeted business these three towering minds walk.  Making eye contact with the employees behind the counter, each member of the crew pulls a piece, while Isaac, the leader, announces their intentions.  Given what was about to happen, you can almost imagine them shouting, “All right, you stickers, this is a f**k-up!”  But no, they were playing it straight.  Isaac had rehearsed his robbery announcement, and he got it right, succeeding in making his meaning known on the first try with crystal clarity.  And as the echo of his words died away, the two parties—three thugs confronting a store owner and a sales clerk—locked eyes.  You can almost imagine the twang of a guitar and maybe the screech of a hawk, Sergio Leone western style, as the still air hung thick with the electric promise of impending action.

The pause while each person considered his options probably lasted only a split second.  But the moment is worth thinking about, turning over in the mind, and savoring.  On the one hand, here we have three young men at a crossroads of life facing a major rite of passage.  Before walking into the store, each thug-wannabe’s manhood had stood untested.  This was the moment that would separate the men from the boys, and would mark them as serious dudes, entitled to a measure of street respect, indelibly stamping them as persons not to be trifled with.

On the other hand were the two store employees, consisting of a sales clerk and the store owner.  They faced an equally momentous decision.  Was this the time to stand up to lawlessness?  If they were to throw up their hands and cooperate, would the affair end peacefully?  Or would the thugs kill them anyway, as has been known to happen?  If they did get shot after surrendering, would they regret having cooperated so meekly?  But if they tried to resist and that got one or both of them hurt, would their actions be considered reckless and inappropriate? 

Layered on top of this were two additional issues of importance. 

One, the store was located in the state of Texas. The citizens there do not look kindly on lawbreakers.  The judicial system takes a very dim view of them.  The culture of Texas is one that adores lawmen.  It also lionizes everyday citizens who fight back against crime.  The state has more guns than people.  It’s embraced the death penalty with almost religious fervor, not quite extending it to cover parking violations.  Texas has nearly 300 people on death row and manages to dispatch a dozen and a half or so of them every year despite all the legal logs that defense attorneys are continually rolling at the feet of prosecutors.  The state has a “stand your ground” law that not only allows but practically requires citizens defending their property to shoot first and forget the questions.  By public consensus, Texans have a civic duty to stand up to lawlessness whenever and by whatever means possible.  It’s a major part of the ethos of being a Texan.

But more important than the culture of the state involved was the nature of the business targeted.  Leonardo, Isaac and Albert had made the decision to knock over a gun store. 

Now, think about that for a moment.  Savor the words.  Let them echo in your mind.  Slowly roll them roll off your tongue.  A.  Gun.  Store.  Now string them all together and spit them out fast, with feeling.  A gun store!  Stir in some profanity for flavor.  A f*****g gun store!  Now complete the thought.  “These idiots were holding up a f*****g gun store—in Texas!”

People who run gun shops aren't just somewhat anti-crime.  It's not a subject about which they have mild feelings, or a topic that just happens to come up every now and again in casual conversation over coffee and donuts.  No.  These are the people who put a shotgun under the counter and pray to Jesus to please send them an armed bandit.  At night, they slumber with a gun tucked beneath the pillow while visions of aerated adversaries dance in their heads.  They stick signs in their front yards bearing pictures of handguns pointed at the reader with captions that advise, "Forget the damned dog.  Beware of OWNER."  They drive pickup trucks equipped with gun racks and adorned with bumper stickers announcing defiantly, "I’LL GIVE YOU MY GUN WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS.”  They post stickers in their store windows that proclaim, "Security by SMITH & WESSON."  Do these people fear armed thugs?  Is Phil Robertson afraid of ducks?  Texas gun owners fantasize about pistol-packing dirtbags.  Their entire purpose in life is to prepare for the day when they might get the chance to catch one in the act.  Shooting a criminal is the entire point of having a gun in the first place.  Absolutely no one is held in higher esteem in the gun rights community than someone who has proven the value of the Second Amendment by drilling a bad guy.

Now let’s revisit our paused action.  The air is deathly silent as the two groups of adversaries face off on opposite sides of the counter.  The sweep hand of the clock on the hall hovers between tick and tock.    Hearts have stopped.  Breathing has ceased.  You can well imagine that at some point the looks of shocked surprise on the faces of the owner and clerk transform into expressions hinting at determined action.  The change is subtle:  a slight narrowing of the eyelids, an almost imperceptible pursing of the lips, a hardening of the glint in the eye.  One has to wonder whether Leonardo, Isaac and Albert even noticed the transformation, or realized what it might portend.  Witness testimony on that point is not clear.  What is clear is that within seconds of announcing the robbery, each of the three perps was spouting gouts of blood in every direction.  Leonardo goes down immediately.  Now having reason to question the soundness of their game plan and possibly even the quality of the decision making process that had led to it, Isaac calls for a strategic withdrawal from the scene of battle for the purpose of regrouping and considering next steps.  Accordingly, he and Albert remove themselves from the store in a not unhurried manner, stumble into their stolen getaway car, and depart down the street at a high rate of speed.  The owner dashes through the cloud of gun smoke hanging thickly in the store, bolts through the front door, and discharges his weapon numerous times in the general direction of the fleeing vehicle.

Moments later, a car with a similar description squeals up to the entrance of a nearby hospital.  The occupant or occupants throw open a door, unceremoniously roll a bleeding, crumpled figure out onto the pavement, and then depart without having the courtesy to formally announce themselves or fill out any paperwork.  Doctors and nurses swarm to attend the perforated patient.  Meanwhile back at the store,paramedics rush Leonardo, who had not been able to make it to the getaway car, to another hospital, where he subsequently expires.  It takes police no time at all to piece together what had happened, and they immediately put out the usual inquiries about the location of the missing mastermind, Isaac.

The gun store owner and his employee emerge from the shootout without a scratch.  It turned out that the owner was a former police officer and an expert marksman.  It further develops that this particular store had been robbed at least once before, and the stickup ended the same way then as it did this second time:  the owner produced a firearm seemingly from out of thin air and shot the bad guy.  Word on the street is that the blammed bandit survived as a quadriplegic and sued the gun store owner for depriving him of his livelihood, but lost.  If any of this caused the gun shop owner any mental anguish or spiritual distress, history does not record that he ever spoke of it.  But he did post a sign in his store front window that gave some hint as to his take on the whole thing.  It read, “FIGHT CRIME.  SHOOT BACK.”

You can’t make this stuff up—and believe me, if news directors could, they would.  It’s stories like this that make the news business what it is today:  profitable.  If you earn a living in news, you owe a debt of gratitude to criminals, especially those that are intellectually challenged.  Their actions create and sustain media jobs.

While this particular anecdote certainly has some humorous elements, it should not be forgotten that a life was lost here.  That’s a tragedy, and there’s nothing funny about it.  Or rather, I should say that there shouldn’t be anything funny about it.  In reality, laughing at the misfortunes of others is a basic part of the human experience, sad to say.  But such laughter does serve an evolutionary purpose.  The perceived entertainment value of stories like these leads us to retell them and thereby spread the knowledge to be gleaned from them.  And there is a lesson to be learned here.  Guns don’t kill people.  Stupid decisions do. 

So if, on career day at your high school, you chose criminality, or plan to do so, you might consider that there are better and more productive ways to spend your time than by setting yourself up to become a poster child for the gun rights movement, and the fulfillment of a gun owner’s fantasy.  My advice:  head to Wall Street.  There’s a lot more money to be stolen there.  You won’t get killed doing it.  And if caught and convicted, the penalties are far less severe.


If you like this style of writing, please check out my novel Messages, which applies the same treatment to the TV news industry.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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