Evil becoming well mannered


By Nury Vittachi

Here’s an idea for thoughtful people. Always carry around a large number of prosthetic limbs, so if you’re assassinated the guy who does the chalk outline will be able to create a fascinating piece of conceptual art. Of course, it’s obviously better if one doesn’t get knocked off, but it’s important to be considerate, right?

The fact is a steady growth of civility and politeness is seeping into the whole evil-doer/law-enforcer paradigm. I started thinking about this when a reader sent me a news cutting about cops raiding a suspected drug house in the US state of Illinois. During the 90-minute search for evidence, a regular stream of drug-buyers turned up at the front door with cash, and police had to post officers there to politely deflect them.

The actual conversations (repeated at least 10 times) were not recorded but must have gone something like this. “Here for illegal drugs?” “Yes, please!” “Terribly sorry, but we’re doing a major police raid here. Would you mind coming back later? Have a nice day.”

The report reminded me of a robbery in Malaysia some years ago. Armed villains took over a 7-Eleven store to steal stuff from the stock room. To buy themselves time, some gang members put on staff coats and served customers who came in. Afterwards, witnesses told investigators that the only suspicious thing was that shop staff were more courteous and attentive than normal.

That tale in turn reminded one of my colleagues about a thief who went into a McDonald’s in Sydney and demanded cash from the till. The quick-thinking manager said: “Sorry, we can’t open the till unless you buy something.” The robber checked his pockets to see if he had enough cash to buy the cheapest thing on the menu. He didn’t. Again the exact words of the exchange were not recorded, but must have been on these lines: “Sorry, bit short of cash today, I’ll come back another time.” “Sure, don’t be a stranger.”

Now of course committing robberies is still illegal whether you’re polite or not, right? Maybe not. Your columnist asked a lawyer who said that a bank robber in the US last summer tried to use his civility as a legal defense. He argued that since he had waited in line, asked for the cash politely, and used the terms “please” and “I would appreciate it” on the note he handed over, the demand should be seen as a friendly request and the money handed over seen as a gift. The defense failed, but I do think he should have won some sort of award for Largest Public Display of Chutzpah.

The same goes for the prisoner from the famous lock-up at Guantanamo Bay who posted his profile on a big dating websites, describing himself as “detained but ready to mingle”. He had been locked away for eight years, so “ready” was probably a bit of an understatement. But then “half-crazed with desperation” might have come across as needy.

Always better to play it cool. Unless you work at a certain 7-Eleven, where it might make folk suspicious.