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New Worlds: A Miscellany of Crimes

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

What else can be a crime?

Anything the authorities want.

I mean that quite seriously: the only real defining characteristic of a crime is “it’s against the law,” and the law can be anything. I remember reading about a law passed in I forget what U.S. town as automobiles first came into use, requiring that any car driven by a woman be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag to warn people she was coming. (One presumes she was also required to drive very slowly, even by early automotive standards.) Failure to provide such warning probably wasn’t a criminal offense in the categorical sense, i.e. as contrasted with civil offenses, but for the sake of simplicity in this essay I’m going to call all violations of the law “crimes.” And since anything can be made illegal, so anything can, in context, be a crime.

Having said that, lots of crimes do fall into recognizable categories, ones that aren’t completely arbitrary. We’ve covered a lot of these in previous essays, especially in Year Six, so I won’t rehash topics like theft and murder here. But there are many other crimes that don’t merit full essays in their own right — let’s take a tour!

Some are offenses against the property of others, on the principle that the government ought to be protecting the things you own. Arson, for example, is a very serious crime, because it often poses a threat not only to the original target, but to everyone and everything around them. As Year Five‘s discussion of fire-fighting showed, even one stray spark can lead to city-wide destruction.

Vandalism, on the other hand, is more limited in scope. But what constitutes vandalism can vary from serious damage — e.g. breaking a window or knifing someone’s car tires — to the more cosmetic, such as graffiti on the side of a building. In a truly oppressive society, even something as easily washed away as chalk drawings on a sidewalk might incur a fine or a beating.

Then again, sometimes a chalk drawing isn’t an innocent work of art. In the modern day, there’s a whole trend toward subverting the messaging of the government or society in general by altering or imitating official logos, slogans, and other symbols. Mocking or contradicting those can be criminalized, especially in the aforementioned oppressive regimes. One of the key markers we look for in calling some place a “free society” is the freedom for citizens to criticize their government; when that right is restricted or removed, things rarely go well.

Similarly, how free are people to talk smack about each other? Defamation — commonly divided into slander (verbal) and libel (printed), though it can also encompass things like images and gestures — is any communication that injures the reputation of another individual or institution. In a society less governed by laws, defamation is often cause for a brawl, a formal duel, or some other form of personal reprisal. Once laws come into play, they may consider truth a defense, granting a pass to any accusations or insults based on verifiable facts . . . or they may not.

In lands where the religion has state backing, offenses against its rules and mores may be similarly criminalized. Blasphemy will get its own essay later, but all manner of violations can become cause for punishment. Did you perform a forbidden activity on a mandated day of rest? Fail to make offerings or genuflect to a holy symbol? Speak or show charity to an individual under a sentence of excommunication? Harm a sacred animal? The range of possibilities here is broad, because the offense is ultimately against the divine, whose expectations and requirements might run along very different lines than those of mundane society.

Other crimes go under the generalized header of fraud. Scams are unfortunately eternal; it’s only their form which changes based on societal conditions. Selling short weight, swapping out an inferior good for the better one that was promised, convincing someone to loan you money or invest in a supposed opportunity, only for the repayment or profit to never materialize . . . humans have poured quite a lot of creativity into figuring out how to extract money from a mark.

Passing yourself off as someone you’re not can incur serious penalties, especially when your assumed identity is someone with particular status or skills you don’t actually have: pretending to be a doctor when you’re not certified (or even educated), claiming to be a police officer or other representative of the state, masquerading as a member of the nobility. Conversely, it may be a crime to not disclose the identity you have, as when the Nazi regime began working to identify and mark out all Jews — including people with Jewish ancestry, regardless of whether they practiced the religion or not.

Moving away from fraud . . . “trespass” is a far broader word in law than the non-specialist may realize. It doesn’t just mean going somewhere you aren’t permitted; it also encompasses trespass to the person, in the form of the assault and battery covered in Year Six, and trespass to chattels, i.e. someone’s movable property. Going where you shouldn’t might incur a penalty as mild as eviction from the premises or as severe as execution. Laws against vagrancy similarly seek to control movement, making it illegal to be homeless or migratory; in those cases, authorities often have the right to expel the offender from their lands (making the vagrant someone else’s problem) or imprison them in some kind of institution of forced labor.

One thing to bear in mind is that what’s a crime for one person may not be a crime for another. This is actually the old sense of the word “privilege,” which literally derives from “private law.” Sumptuary laws exist specifically to mandate what people of different groups must or must not wear, eat, or do with their houses; a nobleman can freely wear silk, eat venison, and put a special gateway at the front of his property, while a merchant regardless of wealth might be fined or slung in jail for doing the exact same thing. And of course the law may close its eyes even when the actions of a high-status individual are a crime . . . but technically that doesn’t affect the law itself, what is and is not permitted.

We’ve still just scratched the surface of this topic, because like I said, anything can be against the law. Copyright infringement. Dumping waste into a river. Cross-dressing. Blackmail and extortion. Leaving holiday decorations up too late. Swearing. Entering the U.K. House of Commons while wearing armor. When it comes to fiction, the relevant question isn’t what could be illegal; it’s what would be interesting to make illegal, and why your invented society would go to the effort of outlawing it!

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: A Miscellany of Crimes”

  1. One excellent example of the laws sometimes being unexpected[1] is that, in the Roman republic, killing someone was not explicitly an offense until the 200s BCE, at which point it became a property crime to kill someone else’s slave. Killing a free person wasn’t explicitly a crime until substantially later, in part because it was seen as a thing for your family to take care of rather than a thing the state had an interest in.

    It was also generally seen, in the case of conduct that *was* against the law, as the responsibility of the wronged party to bring the offender to court (the state did provide the courts and a system for choosing juries), so if the wronged party didn’t have the resources to go to court, or couldn’t go to court themselves (e.g. a woman could not themselves bring a case, but had to have a recognized representative). So whether or not something was effectively against the law depended on whether the victim had the resources or allies to pursue justice.

    Sadly, and predictably, a major exception was more or less any crime committed by a slave, especially a crime committed against a non-slave, because the state believed that any slave getting away with anything had the potential to lead to a slave uprising, and the senate, as the lawmaking body, was filled with slave owners who were very frightened of the idea of a slave uprising, especially one in Rome itself.

    [1] This example taken from the excellent read “A Fatal Thing Happened on the way to the Forum”

    1. Yeah, that’s come up in earlier essays — and I quite enjoyed the book you named! The flip side to “anything can be a crime” is “and sometimes things we assume would be crimes aren’t.”

  2. I once read somewhere about nonsensical US laws that were once (maybe still are?) on the books like the one about women driving a car. The 2 I remember:
    In NYC it was illegal to doff your hat to a horse.
    In Boston it was illegal to beat your wife with a stick longer than 3 feet (presumably a shorter stick was ok.)

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