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Law and Crime

Why Do People Steal?

Some people feel it's their right to steal.

Have you ever stolen anything? Most of us as small children or even as adults have done so. The child, of course, is usually unaware of the crime until the parent forces him/her to take back the candy or whatever bright object was picked up in the store or the change that was scooped off the mantelpiece and slipped into a pocket.

As adults, we sometimes casually take a box of Kleenex from a hotel room, and some might even purloin a towel or a bathrobe, thinking most probably: I’m paying enough for this hotel room. They could give me a few extra Kleenex for the price.

And, of course, people faced by huge hardships are sometimes forced to steal when hungry to save their lives, or when their children are in dire need in wartime or other times and places of grim poverty.

A wonderful example of this is young Pip in “Great Expectations” who steals some bread and a file for the convict who terrifies him with the imaginary man who will tear out his heart and liver if he does not comply.

Socrates says that no one knowingly commits an evil action, evil is turned into good in the mind. The thief, like the pedophile, who convinces himself the child really wants to make love to him, convinces himself that he has a right to the object he desires. He needs it more than the other does. It is rightfully his.

It is easier to steal from an anonymous, large organization, than from an individual, easier to steal from someone who seems well-endowed and has so much more. He won't even notice, he has so much money anyway. The dishonest shopkeeper probably thinks that to steal from people, those he considers to have much more than he has, are too stupid to notice. I have seen this happen in the Hamptons at a fancy grocery store; the cashier simply tacked on the previous person’s bill with my own, imagining I would not notice or perhaps not even care.

It is true about great wealth. A person, for example, who has numerous houses and forgets how many she owns, seems to be legitimate prey.

But what about someone who has all they need and steals anyway? There is an example of this in Jennifer Egan’s “Visit from the Goon squad,” where Sasha finds a wallet left at the basin in the lady’s room by a woman who is in one of the stalls peeing.

She thinks: “It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously ("I get it," Coz, her therapist, said), and take the [expletive] thing.”

So she steals out of a need for excitement, for the thrill of it. One wonders if the large thefts of money in the stock market—insider trading by people who probably already have large amounts of money—are motivated by thinking of this kind.


Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.

Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original) by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here

Dreaming for Freud: A Novel by Sheila Kohler Penguin Books click here

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