How-To Crime Manuals

Identifying the causes of crime means entering the mysterious realm of human motivations. But in the case of Marvin, in prison for robbery, there was nothing mysterious at all. In a survey of prison inmates conducted by Prison Fellowship, Marvin wrote, "Watching TV and seeing people do robberies—and the way it has been glamorized on TV—made me think of doing it myself." TV was his tutor in crime. Psychologists debate endlessly over whether television causes crime. But maybe they should ask those who know best: criminals themselves. People like Marvin tell us without hesitation that they were inspired by television. Criminals' favorite programs are true-to-life cop shows. Many are so detailed and specific that they are virtually how-to manuals for an aspiring criminal. They've become the equivalent of the Frugal Gourmet: Tune in, take notes, and try it yourself. According to surveys reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, as many as one-third of young male prisoners convicted of violent crimes say they were consciously imitating techniques they learned from television. I'm not saying television executives set out on purpose to encourage crime. But with their single-minded concern for the bottom line, the shapers of the mass media often do play a significant role in the downward spiral of our society's moral health. "America is a society where crime, sex, violence, and greed are idolized." Those are not my words; they're the words of a prisoner in Florida named Pete who wrote to Prison Fellowship as part of our survey. "Just turn your television on," Pete wrote, "or look at the top ten video rentals or the best-selling movies. We have this crazy affinity with all that is immoral." If we want to get tough on crime, we have to get tough on the cultural forces that contribute to crime. Today the media moguls can count on depictions of crime and violence to boost the ratings. Why? Because millions of average citizens like you and me watch those programs. As a result, the first line of defense against crime runs right through our own living rooms, where we make decisions about what our families watch and listen to. The apostle Paul lived before the days of television, but he knew how important it is to monitor what we put into our minds. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure . . . if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things." A modern-day Paul would have to do a lot of channel surfing before he would find anything on television meeting that high standard today. That means we can start fighting crime by pressuring broadcast executives to clean up their programming. Social pressure does work: Compared to 50 years ago, today's film and TV heroes are much less likely to smoke or drink. Why not pressure Hollywood for less violence, too? Ultimately criminals, like all of us, are responsible for their own actions. But you and I can help make sure that thieves and murderers are not learning their trade from the TV screen.


Chuck Colson


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