The Cardus Daily

Crimes and Smiley Faces

Peter Stockland  |  October 30, 2012  |  Institutions, Justice

When my car was broken into 10 days ago, I mentioned to a colleague that I feel no malice toward the perpetrator. Other than hoping for his horrible suffering, I wish him a smiley-face day. Seriously.

What does cause me deep concern, however, is the brush with subtle corruption I experienced when in a city police station when I went to fill out the report that is a pre-requisite to filing an insurance claim. I do not mean corruption in the current, misunderstood sense of nudge-nudge, wink-wink bribes. I mean the authentic corruption that begins at what might be called the genetic level of attitudes toward the rule of law itself.

Montreal is a city awash these days in revelations of “corruption” in Quebec’s construction industry. Testimony from the provincial inquiry known as the Charbonneau commission has left everyone shocked—shocked, I tell you—by tales of a city engineer becoming a bribe-fed millionaire, or the office safe of one city politician being so full of dirty money that he could not close its door. The nugget I loved best was the account of how one local bureaucrat actually charged a higher pay-off fee to developers than did the Mafia.

Of course, no one here is actually shocked by any of this at all. You only have to experience the asphalt buckles and heaves of Montreal’s Third World, slum-dog streets to suspect—heck, to know intuitively—that someone, somewhere, is getting cash in a bag for work that never gets done. Indeed, it’s all just a replay of the construction industry corruption in the 1960s and 1970s—an era whose overpasses and bridges are now collapsing as the shelf life of sleazy shoddiness comes due.

Unfortunately, because the media has to perpetually repeat itself as news in order to justify its continued existence, the impression conveyed from the Charbonneau hearings is that “corruption” is the actual exchange of misbegotten money or favors. Obviously, it’s not. They are the symptoms of the disease. Corruption, like a bacterium, has to be understood organically, that is in how it transforms its host into a new state of normal.

So it was when I went to that police station 10 days ago to report the petty theft of my property. My car, when the break-in occurred, was in a parkade with parking attendants and security cameras. I asked the desk officer in the police station if he thought it would be worthwhile to have someone talk to the attendants or at least look at the security cameras. He looked at me with the half-bored, half-anxious expression we reserve for those who wonder if we’re interested in hearing them recount last night’s dream of flying over a mountain of spaghetti stark naked.

“No,” he said, and shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

He wasn’t being lazy. He had done an instant, intuitive calculation of the resources required, and laid off the cost-benefit on the side of doing nothing. In other words, he was being a realist. A crime had occurred, yes, but it was a minor crime of opportunity, and a property crime at that. No one had been hit by a gravel truck. The insurance company would pay. Have a smiley-face day.

Except the perpetrator was still at large, and will doubtless be encouraged to strike again, breaking not just windows but the law over and over and over. I will recoup my losses. The law will be transformed into a new state of normal. Indeed, it already has been.

Perhaps the one genuinely shocking piece of testimony at the Charbonneau commission has been that of a senior bureaucrat who said he did not call the cops about the illegality he witnessed all around him because he felt it was up to his superiors to do something. The streets of Montreal are witness to the corrupting effects of his malicious inaction.



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