Degrees of Theft
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd December, 2009
Every evening in Bangkok, as I walk from Sathorn to Silom to have dinner, I pass a sacred tree, which juts out into the pavement, the base of its trunk painted white. Ranged around it are scores of votive offerings, most of them tiny model elephants. They’ve been there as long as I can remember and they are never moved, though sometimes they get dusted with white or red powder. It would be unthinkable for anyone to steal one, even though they just sit there, day and night. Looking at them this evening, I was reminded of the time, years ago, when I sailed to Abu Simbel on the first cruise boat to operate on Lake Nasser. I stayed overnight on the vessel and went for a late night walk round the little settlement that serves the temple. The day trippers had long since flown back to Luxor or Cairo, but thousands of statuettes and other souvenirs were still laid out on tables near the site, not guarded by anybody. The following morning, when I asked some of the vendors whether they weren’t woried that someone would steal something during the night, they looked at me as if I was mad.
In the one case, it is religion that preserves the votive elephants in Thailand; it would be a form of sacrilege to remove them. But in the other case, it is a matter of honesty — and community spirit — albeit rooted in a moral principle backed up by the force of Koranic scripture. Moral strictures can be very strong, which is why, I suppose, so many people (including me) were scandalised when robbers pinched the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the entrance to Auschwitz concetraion camp. Mercifully it was quickly retrieved, though cut up into three sections. But when it comes to burglaries in a country like England — whether from houses or gardens or cars — often the stolen goods are not retrieved and one wonders about the mentality and morality of the people who thieve. I have lost count of the number of times our window boxes — full of plants — have been nicked from the living room window-ledge during the night and have ceased wondering what happens to them. Petty theft is so common — and considered so trivial, including by the police — that it is shrugged off as part of modern society. But this is not just a matter of material losses, either great or small. Theft is a violation of people, often unknown, individually or collectively — which is why most religions speak out so strongly against it. And it is one reason why ‘modern societies’ like Britain need to to regain their moral compass.