September 4, 2007
Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu recently surrendered to police in California. He was charged more than 15 years ago with grand theft and had been a fugitive since then. The authorities believed he had returned to Hong Kong, his country of origin.
We have all been confronted with theft either has a victim or as a friend or family member of a victim.
The experience is always traumatic and the reactions are diverse.
Is there an ideal way to deal with it and what are the values involved?
The most common and often the first reaction is one of anger. It is a legitimate one. Theft violates the principle of justice and fairness as well as the notion of property. The French socialist and political philosopher, Pierre Joseph Prudhon believed that property was theft. He strongly influenced his friend Karl Marx who wanted to abolish private property.
In consideration of the punishment for stealing we should not confuse the two different notions of vengeance and justice. Although the desire for vengeance or revenge is a legitimate emotion, in our society ruled by law, we have to limit ourselves to justice.
Guilt or innocence is not always easy to establish. Many inmates in our prisons claim and believe that they did nothing wrong and therefore do not deserve to be in jail.
It might be helpful to consider the circumstances that lead to the action. Our court system does take into account circumstances of defendants and sometimes considers the values of mercy and redemption.
In Victor Hugo's, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, an escaped convict steals silverware from the Bishop who had given him asylum for the night. He is caught by the police and brought back to the Bishop. The Bishop declares to the police officers, that the silverware they found in Jean Valjean's possession was, in fact, a gift he had made to him.
I am quite sure my Grandmother never read Les Miserables, but she once faced a similar situation. While my father, the owner of a private school in Switzerland, was absent, the deputy director of the school informed her that silverware was missing and that the police was on its way. She suspected one of the female employees and immediately went to her room, found the silverware and took it to her room. When the police arrived they found nothing. She later told my father: "I had a choice, one the one hand was silver and on the other was a soul." She showed compassion and I believe the employee never stole again. .
Finally, we should also consider that we might have been, in the past, personally involved in activities that could be considered theft. There are many forms of stealing, such as plagiarism, copyright infringement and the divulging of secrets. I believe that revealing a secret is a form of theft. It is disposing of something (information) that does not belong to you.
The Ethicist and Theologian Lewis B. Smedes once said: "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."