Ours is a culture whose preoccupation with criminality and justice has come to be, in clinical terms, fetishistic. From playing cops and robbers and jailbreak as kids to spending quiet evenings watching the most depraved criminal acts committed and punished on “CSI” or “Law and Order,” we seek a position overlooking the scene of the crime or in the gallery at the trial, alternately rooting for the quirky detective, the ingenious criminal, the hooker with the heart of gold, etc.
The psychosocial reasoning behind fiction in general is a tangled mess, and determining the cultural benefits of our preoccupation with stories about crime and punishment is as intriguing as it is difficult. One perspective has it that the safely unreal distance of fiction’s facsimile establishes a space where, one page at a time, one channel after another, different combinations of cause and effect are played out almost invariably culminating in a precise re-creation of existing social morality. Hard work and smarts pay off in the end. People who break the rules will get punished sooner or later. It’s amazing how much time we spend repeating these messages to ourselves.
I walked into the gas station to buy some cigs the other day and, once again, caught site of a relatively new publication called Crime Times that has graced the counter of my neighborhood corner store for about a year now. The self-described “Best Mug Shot Mag on the Market” is composed of one page after the next of recent arrest photos in the Metro area with the charges listed below them. My impulse is to say the magazine is a complete and unmitigated piece of shit because, well, it really is. As I always invariably do, I picked it up, made a disapproving face accompanied by the tsk tsk noise, feeling a little bit more disenfranchised. I pressed pause on my iPod and stopped listening to the audio version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” one of the most graphically brutal novels I’ve ever willfully endured, long enough to politely thank the store clerk for the pack of cigs and register my complete contempt for a magazine that is, in effect, a circulating for-profit pillory of alleged criminality in my community.
I was down the block before I noted the way I’d simultaneously interacted with these two representations of criminality: one that I begrudgingly approved of, and another that seemed unbearable. It was a dizzyingly perfect storm of contradictory but irrevocably associated impulses and judgments. Briefly stated, my question was this: Why did voluntarily engaging with really awful fictionalized crime seem natural and palatable, while the circulation of arrest photos from the city where I live seem really sick?
Once home, I made a few calls and ended up speaking with a helpful and enthusiastic officer in the records department at Louisville Metro Police. I asked how a regular citizen gains access to mug shots and told him I was interested in Crime Times. “It’s all public record. You just come down here and buy ’em. They’re about $3 a pop. A lot of people think we’re the ones who put that magazine out. We don’t have anything to do with it. It’s all public record.” I found it interesting that “a lot of people” think the police department is responsible for Crime Times, and it speaks to one tiny part of what has confused me so much about what was supposed to be a simple trip to the store.
What bothers me most about Crime Times is not the way it visually and contextually associates society’s most disgusting criminality (namely pedophilia) with pretty boring infractions like marijuana possession, thus reproducing them as somehow similar. Nor is it the rank opportunism of a private, for-profit enterprise commodifying and reselling alleged criminal acts and normalizing a culture of surveillance to boot. That’s just obviously fucked up.
What unsettles me the most is that the magazine — thinly veiled as some public service (everybody knows that photographs of convicted sex offenders are available online and searchable by ZIP code, right?) — is actually in the business of providing entertainment in the form of public recreational voyeurism that hinges on actual or alleged crimes. This conflation of the expectations of the real and the desire to be entertained seems like a dangerous conflation of the fictional and the actual.
How long before we’re all watching the new hit show “The Running Man”?