So, Somebody Stole Your Pig
Police are a modern invention. For most of human history, people did without state-sponsored law enforcement. Pre-modern law, as with law today, was complicated and unique in each time and place. In medieval Europe, the area of my expertise, how the law was enforced was in large part up to the victim of a crime
Pig theft is my favorite criminal example, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s historically appropriate. Pigs got stolen a lot because they were valuable. They eat your garbage and somehow remain delicious. They’re also easy pickings. Sometimes they got loose from their pens. If they didn’t, you could just open their pen in the middle of the night and choose a pig for yourself. I’ve never stolen a pig myself, but I imagine it’s much easier than stealing a bike. If you, or anyone you know, has stolen both a pig and a bike please do let me know if I’m right.
So, someone stole your pig. There’s a few ways you could handle this in the absence of cops. You could talk to the thief. Maybe you amble over to his pig pen, remark on his new pig and how it looks a lot like your old pig that is now missing. Eventually, Columbo style, you get him to confess and give you back your pig out of shame. Maybe the thief has no shame and you do not have Columbo’s finesse. You’re more of a Jack Bauer. You march over to the thief’s house, beat the daylights out of him, and take your pig back. Or, in your heart, you’re really a Perry Mason. You want the thief to have his day in court so that you can falsify evidence and badger him until he breaks down into a tearful confession. Of course, there’s no Lieutenant Tragg to take the thief to court for you, so you’re going to have to do it yourself, either with your Columbo- or Bauer-like powers of persuasion.
There’s also another way you can deal with the theft, an option that’s not often considered. You could let it go. Maybe you hated that pig. Pigs, as I’ve learned from studying the middle ages, can be real pieces of shit. They will literally eat the face off of a baby if given the opportunity. Maybe you’ve looked into that pig’s eyes and saw nothing but blackhearted animal malice. But your husband’s been gaslighting you, saying it’s you that’s crazy and not your murderous pig. So you kept it around because after all, was that porker really looking at junior with hungry eyes? But when your pig is stolen you whisper to yourself “good” and go back to rethatching your roof for what feels like the thirtieth time.
This last tactic has some lessons for us in the modern day. In a world with no police, legal action was rarely taken without a complainant. Generally, if someone committed a crime, but nobody really cared about the crime, that was that, the criminal got away with it, as it were. A common example of this was priests who lived with women. It was illegal for priests to have what we call in the business “concubines”. It was also super common. Many priests fell in love with women, lived with them, had kids with them, and built homes and lives with them. A lot of priests did this for many years, decades even, because nobody cared enough to report them for it. They liked their priest, they liked his concubine, everything was copacetic.
In America we don’t always have the luxury of letting people get away with things. For example, by many accounts, Eric Garner was well liked and a positive presence in his community. He augmented his income, allegedly, by selling loose cigarettes, a crime against state and local tax code. He had been arrested multiple times for it. On July 17, 2014 police, unprompted by any complaints from the community, confronted him again for allegedly selling loosies. Garner expressed frustration at what he perceived to be unwarranted police harassment. Things quickly escalated and Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. Garner died that day. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office ruled his death homicide caused by Pantaleo’s chokehold, listing Garner’s asthma, heart disease, and obesity as contributing factors.
Former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood, Jr. has pointed out that police are under enormous pressure to make arrests. They are also given wide latitude to do so. Driving with a journalist from Vice, he says, “you can’t actually drive a car legally. It would be impossible. No one could get this car from here to the end of the street completely legally.” Wood is making that point that we’re always swimming in a gill net of laws that enable police to arrest any person “at any point in time”. Moreover, he asserts that unions and politicians protect officers from any negative consequences of their actions, allowing police to make arrests with an astonishing amount of force. In a quixotic attempt to protect our citizenry and eradicate crime, we have enacted an expansive legal system that makes criminals of us all, including our police.
I have no desire to revive the middle ages. I am not a Columbo, Bauer, or Mason. I am a weak, conflict-averse coward and I will call a cop if someone steals my pig. But the middle ages can help us think about law enforcement and what we want from it. In modern America, we push police to seek out crimes to punish for the purpose of being able to say that we are punishing criminals. Law enforcement has become an end in itself. But law enforcement should be used to protect the health of the community. If enforcing a law creates more chaos than breaking the law, then by all means, let the law be broken.