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Escalating Offenses

“I admit I’ve made mistakes, but I’m not a bad human being.”

It was a phrase I heard dozens of times during the series of prison interviews I conducted. The young, articulate man who sat on the opposite side of the long table had gunned down two guards in a botched armored car robbery. Both had died.

“Basically, I’m no different from anybody else.”

I had begun the interviews looking for insights into the high incarceration rates of black males. I knew about drugs  and the easy availability of guns. I also had strong feelings about the contribution of poverty to the rising crime rate. But the interviews were not going the way I had anticipated. The picture that was emerging was that of a body of young men who were clearly separating their concept of self from their deeds.

What I wanted, in retrospect, was to find a flaw in the system, some rationalization that explained away the lapses in morality. But none of the prisoners I interviewed, most of whom had committed very serious crimes, was in jail for the first time. They were all repeat offenders who could give a history of escalating offenses. It became evident that the separation of their self-images from their deeds was not just a face-saving gesture, but an avenue by which a crime could be committed without the burden of an uneasy conscience.

Even the way the prisoners related their tales was interesting. They would often talk in the active first person about  themselves, and then switch to the passive voice when talking about the crime.

“The guy grabbed for the gun, you know, and there were some shots fired.”

Shots fired? I had read the trial transcript. He had pumped three shots into a drug dealer’s back.

My own background was similar to most of my interviewees. I was a black male, raised in what is now called the  inner city, and I’ve always been fairly aggressive physically. But I’ve never been able to approach behavior which my  American and Christian upbringing considered immoral without feeling that I would be immoral to act out such  behavior.

This is what I wanted to write about when I started Monster, this basic idea of owning the responsibility for one’s  behavior before the errant deed.

Steve, my young protagonist, is asked to participate in a crime. He’s asked to check out the scene before the robbery goes down. I gave him every opportunity to refuse to participate, but I also gave him a major opportunity to take part in the caper while denying it to himself.

What I wanted to accomplish in the book was to present the moral issue of Steve’s thinking prior to the act. To  emphasize Steve’s separating of thought and act, I have him write in diary form when he’s talking about his misery in jail. But when he writes about the crime and the attendant trial he switches to the screenplay form.

Bob Lipsyte once said that I was overly protective of my characters, and I think I am. But I wasn’t protecting Steve when he was found not guilty. His legal guilt was not the issue. His moral stance was.

I think we too often allow young people to avoid active moral decisions. We’ve come from a moral system that was  often too rigid to a system of graduated tolerances. We allow the young bully’s bad behavior because it is easier to let it go than to deal with it. We accept antisocial behavior as if there were no universal standards even within a single culture, until that antisocial behavior runs afoul of the legal system, and then we “get tough” on crime.

I wonder, as I get older and more conservative, if I am to become a cantankerous moralist. I hope so.

From the November/December 2001 special “Religion and Politics” issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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