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The World of the Little People

By  Feb 11, 2008

Topics: Software Security, Security

In pirkey avoth (the 1st century Jewish sages' codex of social and ethical norms) it is said: "try not to see thy brother in his misconduct". Little has changed in the past 2000 years in this respect. We still turn a blind eye towards what I call "micro-criminals" . Such a selective sense of vision may be the glue that keeps the thin veneer of civilization in its place. Yet it comes at a price.

Several months ago, new neighbors moved in next door. Right from the start, I had some unpleasant gut feelings about them but I couldn't put my finger where exactly the problem was. Was it just my antipathy towards the landlord's greediness, and the frequent changes of tenants in that apartment? Was it my prejudice?

A few days later I noticed cigarette butts in the lobby. Knowing my other neighbors for almost 10 years, I knew it couldn't be them. The immediate suspects were the new neighbors, but I feared I was jumping to conclusions. Then my newspaper started to disappear occasionally. I still wanted to turn a blind eye, hoping that the mysterious newspaper thief would turn out to be a bored teenager on a too long vacation. The thought that two grown ups living next door would stoop to stealing a newspaper that's worth less than $1.00 was unbearable -- but why really?

A few more mysterious butts in the lobby and some more missing newspapers forced me to act. The courier leaves the paper at my doorstep at 4:00 AM. One very early morning, minutes after the courier left the paper at my doorstep I saw the thieves through my peephole. Yes, these were my dear new neighbors. I was paralyzed. I couldn't even open the door, surprising them red handed. A strange feeling of embarrassment mixed with disgust engulfed me. Why on earth was it I who felt embarrassed in front of the micro-crimes of other little people?  

Two weeks later while shopping at the supermarket I noticed two suspicious teenagers at the toiletries shelf. What made them look suspicious? Perhaps the annoying tune that one of them whistled, as he tried to disguise his trepidation. Or maybe it was his hanging around the hair gel section (hair gels are one of the shoplifters' favorite items). A moment later, the whistling thief rushed to the exit with a peculiar bulge in his pockets -- I had just witnessed another micro-criminal. Again that mix of embarrassment and disgust overwhelmed me.

Most of us believe that shoplifters, newspaper thieves, and other inferior forms of life are the margins of society; that our neighbors "are not like that" or perhaps that I happen to live in a bad neighborhood. I don't. Mine is an ordinary neighborhood, with what appears to be normal neighbors. Alas, that's exactly the problem -- micro-criminals are (almost) ordinary little people. They are a universal, commonplace and timeless phenomenon. What drives seemingly civilized people into such behavior? Low income is certainly not the cause. Boredom and attention seeking might be the cause in some cases, more sinister psychiatric disorders in others. I'm not interested in the causes of this phenomenon, though. Rather, I'm trying to understand why I feel embarrassed when I witness micro-criminals in action. Does my embarrassment stem from the recognition that I live among such people? Does that make me' heaven forbid, one of them!? Is it even possible to escape from such people? Perhaps the secret for a healthy and peaceful life lies in really not seeing rather than pretending that I don't see?