Why I Feel Empathy For The Man Who Mugged Me

I’m not mad at the thief. I’m mad at our capitalist system.

Getting mugged last week wasn’t on my NYC trip to-do list.

I was blindsided walking back to the house where I was staying around 1 a.m., which means I don’t have a particularly linear memory of what happened. As this was not my first brush with trauma, I have a keen understanding of the ways it interferes with its victims’ ability to recall their experiences — even if our media and law enforcement completely fail to grasp trauma’s neurological effects — so at least I’m not beating myself up further for not being able to get it just right.

I wasn’t going to report the incident at that hour with no ID, no keys to the house I was standing in front of, and no way to call the friends who owned it anyway. I knew even in my dazed state that I must have looked pretty awful after being shoved to the ground from behind. My knees were skinned, bruises already forming. My left hip hurt, probably from landing off-balance on some of the small fence-like “landscaping” that Brooklyn sidewalks have around trees and flowers. I wouldn’t see the palm-sized, purple and blue contusion until the next day, after I’d gotten a few hours of sleep and felt ready to face the damage. It was clear, when I did investigate, that I definitely wasn’t able to catch myself; there are no bruises on my left arm and I picked leaves and other debris out of my hair, which had been firmly pinned to the top of my head.

The man who stole from me caught me in transition mode — between riding in a car and walking, when most of us are least on our guard. It was a crime of opportunity; had I been walking from the subway, I would have had a firmer grip and been in motion, much harder to knock down.

Considering the coping mechanisms I’ve learned in the wake of past trauma, and that my injuries didn’t require a trip to the hospital, I’ve been surprised by how long it’s taken to recover from the incident. I was (and am still) pretty exhausted; my keys were in the bag and the friends who’d generously flown me out were on vacation, so getting back into the house took more than eight hours.

But despite all this, I wasn’t (and am not) mad at the thief.

My reluctance to blame the man who mugged me has surprised and disappointed some people, while leaving others concerned that I’m in some kind of denial.

I scheduled a second therapy session this week in case my friends were right, as they often are. Doc (my nickname for my amazing therapist) assures me I’m not in denial, though I definitely still seem shaken. We agreed on a cause, which made me feel better.

It turns out, I’m mad at our system — for allowing someone to be desperate enough to shove me down for a few twenties, a phone charger, and a slew of stuff that he can’t use, but which will cost me a relative fortune to replace. I even sorta hope he saw my Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card, because otherwise $100 got tossed in the trash.

I’m mad at our system — for allowing someone to be desperate enough to shove me down for a few twenties.

“System” is an unfortunately overused word, and I’m certainly guilty of relying on it as shorthand for “X/Y/Z thing built into our culture that’s completely fucked.” Here, I specifically mean the 20th century American construction of individualism within our frustratingly unregulated capitalist economic system — a concept based upon a piece of satire from nearly 200 years ago.

Slate deputy editor John Swansburg broke this down in “The Self-Made Man: The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.” He wondered — as I did in my youth — whether the idea that any of us can become rich and successful was a good motivational tool or a highly stigmatizing trope that should be done away with.

“The very language we use to describe the self-made ideal has these fault lines embedded within it: To ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ is to succeed by dint of your own efforts,” wrote Swansburg. “But that’s a modern corruption of the phrase’s original meaning. It used to describe a quixotic attempt to achieve an impossibility, not a feat of self-reliance. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps, anymore than you can by your shoelaces. (Try it.) The phrase’s first known usage comes from a sarcastic 1834 account of a crackpot inventor’s attempt to build a perpetual motion machine.”

While I was on food stamps last year, the real harm of the “mobility myth” became clear. The richest 1% of Americans own 40% of this country’s wealth, and almost half of children in this country live in homes where the parent(s) struggle. Both sets of people are likely to pass their financial situations onto their children and their children’s children. But, as Swansburg wrote, Pew’s Economic Mobility Project 2009 survey found that “39% of respondents said they believed it was ‘common’ for people born into poverty to become rich, and 71% said that personal attributes like hard work and drive, not the circumstances of a person’s birth, are the key determinants of success.”

People still think that anyone in America can become rich on their own. But in other places, this simply isn’t something you see as either propaganda or cultural construction. In more upwardly mobile countries like Canada, Denmark, and France, community is more assumed. And in countries where poverty occurs at similar or higher rates as it does here, people expect to have to work together and help each other within families and other groups. Between Bill Clinton’s welfare “reform” (which a remarkable percentage of people see as positive) and the GOP’s rampant food stamp shaming (seriously, they tried to deny us dried beans, pasta sauce, and potatoes last year in various states), those of us who are in occasional or perpetual desperate circumstances are often sure it’s just us.

Even if we aren’t the type to self-blame, we’re certainly low on resources. Even though I live in the progressive jackpot state of California, I was only getting around $120/month in food assistance and — despite my gross adjusted annual income of around $11,000 — I didn’t qualify for low-income housing. I know what it’s like to feel desperate. I’ve felt that way more than I’ve felt even moderately secure for as long as I can remember. So, I get the mugger.

I don’t know why he needed the money; it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s such a high-risk, low-reward crime that I can be sure he was desperate.

No one really carries much cash anymore — just ask anyone who’s had to split a check in the last five years. In fact, almost half of us carry less than $20 around on your average day — which is probably why I only found one recent story about wallet theft in my area. It’s from 16 months ago. Apparently, while they don’t often run up credit cards, thieves do go after your airline miles and other rewards now, which is frustrating but almost polite.

Experts agree that if your wallet is stolen, you’re just not going to get it back. Why? Cash isn’t traceable and people have alerts on their cards; most thieves just want what they can’t get caught using. This means your purse and/or wallet are a few blocks away in a dumpster, pretty much guaranteed.

For that likely low payoff, the mugger is relatively likely to get caught. According to a study published in the Journal of Labor Economics titled “The Risks and Rewards of Criminal Activity: A Comprehensive Test of Criminal Deterrence,” “predatory crimes such as burglary” are “[a]t the high end of the criminal risk spectrum.” People report muggings more often than other crimes and, if you get arrested, you’re also more likely to go to prison. Research says these are things potential thieves think about before snatching your stuff.

It’s such a high-risk, low-reward crime that I can be sure he was desperate.

According to the study, the “potential criminal” needs the risk of getting caught and/or punished to be worth the potential reward. Crime is a gamble. And people without sustainable income procured legally — like social security benefits or food stamp money — are more inclined to roll the dice.

“The primary matter of concern to the potential criminal is not the crime risk per se, but whether the frontier of criminal rewards-crime risks offers a crime option that is superior to his legitimate job alternatives,” wrote the study’s author. In a related study, he “found that legitimate job prospects also affected criminal behavior.” So, as expected, people with access to legitimate money are less likely to shove someone like me down and grab their bag, hoping against hope that there’s some cash in it. (Congrats to my mugger, by the way. Extraordinarily uncharacteristically of me, due to several check splittings with friends who carry cash, I actually had some in my bag.)

Of course, we’re all ultimately responsible for our own actions, but desperation can’t be ignored as a leading motivator for thievery. I’m not negating my own trauma — or that of anyone who has been through something similar. But I’m also not directing anger toward whoever jacked my purse because the desperation I’ve felt in my own life floods me with empathy.

There’s another reason I didn’t report the mugging. Arrest records and prison time don’t make people less desperate; they make them more so. Try finding a legal avenue to sustainable income with an arrest record. (Don’t actually, it’s a literal nightmare.) We have a mass incarceration problem as it is — a very expensive one.

According to the ACLU, our “[p]rison system costs now account for 1 out of every 15 state general fund discretionary dollars. Criminal justice is the second-fastest-growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and 90% of that spending goes to prisons. We are wasting trillions of dollars on an ineffective and unjust criminal justice system. We have more effective tools for preventing and responding to crime than prisons.”

It turns out — ATTENTION candidates for office as well as incumbents! — that “[p]ublic safety could be better achieved by spending less money incarcerating people and spending more money on health care, education, housing, and jobs programs.”

I’m not telling people to not report their wallets stolen — most of us need the protections of a police report for credit cards (which I don’t have because of a bankruptcy), bank cards, and to protect against identity and medical fraud. But rooting for those responsible to be thrown in jail while completely ignoring how and why people commit these crimes is not just short-sighted, it’s ineffective. Adding to the prison population doesn’t bring down crime. And it’s a terrible drain on our tax dollars.

Instead, we need solutions to the underlying problems. I get that these problems are complicated and don’t make for snappy soundbites or retorts in a debate, but if we as a people want to bring crime down, we have to make things better for those who are forced to consider it as their most viable option for survival.

I’m here for a universal basic income, which writer Jesse Myerson calls “Social Security for all,” much the way single-payer is essentially “Medicare for all.” But until that’s politically viable, I’ll take the restoration of reasonable unemployment insurance benefits, the elimination of time limits for welfare assistance, more affordable public transportation, higher food assistance allotments, actually affordable housing, and more access to the full range of health care needs for everyone.

Until we start filling in the gaps that make people desperate, what happened to me last week will keep happening. Increasing overall stability decreases the potential for crime — it’s a win on every level.