Reflections: Civil Disobedience

The New Yorker, September 12, 1970.


Writer discusses the grave threat to our judicial system. For many years now the law-enforcement agencies have been unable to enforce the statues against drug traffic, mugging, and burglary. Considering that the chances that criminal offenders in these categories will never be detected at all are better than nine to one, there is every reason to be surprised that such crime is not worse than it is… The simple & rather frightening truth is that under circumstances of legal and social permissiveness people will engage in the most outrageous criminal behavior who under normal circumstances perhaps dreamed of such crimes but never actually considered committing them. We have learned to our sorrow, that organized crime is less to be feared than nonprofessional hoodlums – who profit from opportunity – and their entirely justified “lack of concern about being punished.” What has broken down is not the legal system but its enforcement. If police power were restored where from 60 to 70 per cent of all criminal offenses were cleared by arrest & properly judged it would mean the collapse of the already overburdened courts. The answer of the govt. to this, and to simularly obvious breakdowns of public services, has invariably been the creation of study commissions. Their recommendations are seldom acted upon but rather are subjected to a new panel of researchers… Research has become & substitute for action. Writer contrasts criminal action & civil disobedience saying it would be neither correct nor wise to equate the two.

The New Yorker