The Innocent Criminal
The criminal plays an extraordinarily prominent role in our fantasy lives, given his rarity in our lived lives. Criminals occupy maybe a quarter of the evening news, and maybe a third of the movies we watch. But even this reference suggests an odd doubleness to the criminal: he (or occasionally she) is often fascinating and desirable in movies, but usually reviled in the news. This isn’t simply a matter of hypocrisy: it’s not that the movies express what the news doesn’t dare to say. They’re simply dealing with different sorts of criminals. The guilt of the movie-criminal excites us, that of the news-criminal is revolting. Of course there’s a pleasure in hearing about the news-criminal— otherwise he wouldn’t be on the news—but the pleasure is half-masochistic horror, half-self-righteousness, and altogether not quite as much fun as the movies. The movies offer us a criminal beyond sin and beyond guilt, a smooth and fearless criminal in a well-tailored suit, a man with no regrets and no guilt; the news offers us something we know much better. The news-criminal is the sick, damaged, half-human criminal, the broken one. Criminals always pose the question of our own guilt: are we any better, are we any worse? The news-criminal does this in an obvious way: we get to feel like we’re pretty okay—or maybe just that we got away with it. The movie criminal, though, poses a stranger question: why do we admire him? What does our obedience to the law mean if we still admire the rebel? We recognize him as free—free of law, but more than that, free of guilt. That we must imagine a criminal to imagine innocence says a good deal about our relation to the law.
Townes van Zandt’s ballad “Pancho and Lefty” provides a perfect double portrait of the criminal: Pancho is the criminal as ideal rebel, Lefty is the criminal as dishonest scum. Pancho is the admirable, miraculous criminal, the one who lives openly outside the law, recognizing no authority—“he wore his gun outside his belt / for all the honest world to feel.” He is the bandit, the American translation of the Satan myth: phallic as all hell, free of guilt and free of compromise. He dies as such men ought to, in a blaze of gunfire, killed by the police who can’t tame him.
Our admiration for this kind of criminal is almost embarrassingly analyzable: he is the mirror image of our compromises, of our fear and guilt. We acknowledge laws and other unfortunate necessities, but we’re criminals at heart and so we have a place in our heart for a certain kind of criminal.
Lefty is somewhat more complicated. An old associate of Pancho’s, he fled to Ohio when the latter was killed and has been rotting away there ever since. It gradually becomes clear through implication that Lefty betrayed Pancho to the police in return for his own safety—that he let Pancho die young in the Mexican desert so that he could grow old in the Cleveland winters. It also becomes clear that, far from getting away scot free, Lefty got the raw end of this deal: “Lefty he can’t sing the blues / all night long like he used to / the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” The chorus of the song (“All the Federales say / they could have had him any day / They only let him slip away / Out of kindness I suppose”) shades gradually from cynicism to a sorrowful irony: it begins by implying Lefty’s crime and ends up suggesting that they might have been kinder to shoot him.
Lefty makes a deal with the law, betrays his companion in order to cling to his own life—in order, in other words, to grow old. His reward is also his punishment. If Pancho is the realized image of our antinomian desires, Lefty is practically the opposite: he gives in, he sells out his friend merely to save his own sorry skin. But Van Zandt ends the song with a plea for Lefty:
Well the poets tell how Pancho fellWe don’t need to hate Lefty: his punishment is enough, it fits the crime. He made his deal with the law, and now he has to live with it. If Pancho is the realization of our antinomian desires, Lefty represents something much closer to home.
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
And now he’s growin’ old
If Pancho is Satan, Lefty must of course be Judas. The figure of Judas is one of the great perfections of the New Testament, sketched in precisely three strokes none of which is inessential:
- Judas betrays Christ for money, and for a precise sum of money: thirty pieces of silver. (Matthew 26:14-16)
- Judas betrays Christ with a kiss. His kiss is the sign with which he reveals Christ to the soldiers who have come for him. (Matthew 26: 48)
- When the necessary consequence of his action comes to pass—when Christ is condemned and crucified—Judas returns the money and hangs himself. (Matthew 27: 5)
Dante assigns Judas to the lowest spot in Hell; alongside Brutus and Cassius, he ends up at the center of the ninth circle, stuck head-first into one of Satan’s three mouths. Of course this is only right—Judas is the ultimate criminal of Christendom—but the Gospel’s laconic account of his end is far more proper. Judas betrayed what he loved best, and what was most worthy of adoration; what punishment could be appropriate to that crime? Any punishment would be precisely as incommensurate and irrelevant as the reward he received. His suicide is merely the necessary consequence of his crime. In betraying Christ he betrays everything worthwhile about himself, and death is the only thing left to him.1
Judas is the opposite of a martyr. Virtually every day of the Catholic calendar is consecrated to someone who died for Christ—not in order to save him, of course, but merely in order to bear witness to him. The bloodied bodies of the martyrs manifest a loyalty to something absolutely incommensurable with worldly goods. Christian ethics as a whole is polarized by this opposition between Judas and the martyr: between the one who bears witness and the one who sells out, between the faithful and the faithless. It is an ethics not of the law but of the promise. Paradoxically, in this opposition the law falls on the side of the faithless: Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities, to the Pharisees, to the lawgivers. The law isn’t the criterion of innocence; instead, it’s what you sell out to.
We usually understand guilt in relation to the law, as the consequence of a violation of the law. Guilt is what the individual feels when he violates society’s norms—that’s what we say. But is that adequate to our experience? Is it adequate to our fantasy? Ask the question this way: who is without guilt? Who is genuinely innocent? The answer is clear: only the martyr and the great criminal are innocent, because only they resist the law. The martyr because he remains faithful to his love and bears witness, while the criminal remains faithful merely to himself—but both are united in that both refuse to make a deal. It’s surely no coincidence that the very few ethical paragons the last century offers were at once rebels and martyrs—such as Martin Luther King, such as Gandhi. The test of innocence is precisely one’s willingness to face down the law, to resist its claims and endure its punishments.
We live in a time when the law is very, very easy to obey—ever less restrictive, ever less demanding. If guilt has not left us along with the law—and it hasn’t, on the contrary, it’s ubiquitous—we need to reimagine what guilt might be. We feel guilt not because we are rebellious—not because we’re Satan, Pancho, the movie criminal, the proud, cruel and independent man—but on the contrary, because we are all too obedient. We love Satan precisely because we are so much closer to Judas. Freedom from guilt—innocence, perhaps, or redemption—is not to be found in obedience to the law, but in a martyrdom precisely against the law. Why should this be? That we know of nothing worth dying for makes the question all the more pressing.