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Law and Crime

Coronavirus Crimes

A global outbreak is redefining crime.

An 86-year-old woman died last Sunday after a fellow patient in a Brooklyn hospital allegedly punched her in the head for "violating social-distancing" orders.

In a Pennsylvania parking lot last Sunday, a man was arrested for allegedly shooting repeatedly into the car of another man who had warned him to cover his mouth while coughing.

Four teens were arrested for allegedly beating and robbing a woman at a New York State dollar store yesterday after accusing her of being infected with the coronavirus.

A Florida pastor was arrested this week for holding services at his megachurch.

A New Jersey couple faces multiple child-endangerment charges after hosting a bat-mitzvah party at their home last Sunday.

A railroad engineer faces federal charges for allegedly derailing a train and smashing through barriers at the Port of Los Angeles yesterday while attempting to damage the USNS Mercy hospital ship.

Crime has existed in some form as long as humans have. But we are living under special circumstances—medically, emotionally, even spatially special—which spur special types of crime. Practiced lawbreakers now prey on panicking populaces. And formerly model citizens face public shaming and arrest for actions that were not just legal last year but admired, envied, adored... or blissfully ignored.

Right before our eyes, entire categories of behavior and beliefs are being redefined. One such category is crime.

For instance: Three is now literally, legally, a crowd.

In Germany, Australia, and the UK, gatherings of more than two are banned. Police are authorized to disperse larger groups and issue fines. In the Australian state of Queensland, this fine amounts to $880 U.S.

British police agencies have established Internet hotlines where users can report their neighbors for holding gatherings and otherwise disobeying social-distancing rules.

Breaking a law means knowing that one is inflicting harm and/or transgressing societal standards and/or risking capture, then punishment—yet breaking it anyway.

Crime is its own emotional arithmetic: potential penalties subtracted from seeming rewards, the variable values of acts sometimes premeditated, sometimes calculated instantly amidst hair-trigger rage, hate, fear.

Sci-fi novelists might once have wondered: What would make the world at large
condemn wedding guests, pals sharing beer bottles in a park, shopkeepers who stay open, and whoever stands two—not six—feet apart?

What could sway our judgment so globally, so rapidly? What could change all those goalposts outlining what we once thought was safe? What could spawn new, unprecedented laws criminalizing picnics, handshakes, hugs?

Well, this would. This.

Just as it spurs a newfound terror-of-infection in those who were not formerly anxious—that is, those unlike myself—this outbreak also triggers newfound fears: of being victimized by bandits and abusers who know we are home alone, afraid, maybe in need. Who know that amidst torrents of conflicting news, we are credulous and confused. Who know that first-responders might be overtaxed, thus slow.

In millions who might never previously have considered committing crimes, the outbreak triggers fears of unemployment, ruin, starvation, invasion, death—and visions of untold survival strategies.

In some, the outbreak triggers ennui: blank space in which we become our own best and worst.

It also spurs a "snitch" mentality that makes some feel unprecedentedly superior, useful, and socially approved at last, for watching one another with intent, for recommending or even enacting punishment.

When this ends, what—in our minds and the law—will still be criminal, and for how long? When might we start forgiving picnickers and stop fearing, as we fear robbers or shoppers standing right behind us on the checkout line?

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