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What is crime?

What is crime?

Required reading

Who: Hans Nelen, Professor of Criminology

What: The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, Mark Twain

Target group: Law students

What is crime? This is the first question that criminologist Hans Nelen asks his students. “Visiting a prostitute? A bank robbery? Failing to enter something on a tax form? They usually find the latter to be less of a crime than a robbery.” And that is because, Nelen says, people tend to speak of two separate worlds: ‘our’ unspoilt world versus the underworld of serious criminals. “We hold on to the image that criminals are from ‘elsewhere’. But this dividing line is not so sharp at all.”

That much will become clear to the students who read The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (1900) by American writer Mark Twain. “Hadleyburg is a fictitious community in which the residents do all that is within their power to maintain the reputation of it being ‘civilised’. Children learn that respect and integrity are part of the greater good. But an outsider who comes to visit sees right through the farce. When the man takes offence at something innocent, he leaves a letter and a bag of money behind and - deliberately - sends the whole community into a frenzy. He forces 19 prominent local citizens to reflect upon themselves. These gentlemen are by no means honourable. Everyone knows that things have been happening that do not pass muster: bullying, sexual harassment, pilfering money, et cetera. But people remain silent. Until arguments arise, partly because of the bag of money. The dignitaries call each other to account and the social lie is exposed. The essence of the book? It shows exactly how organised crime is connected to society. Crime does not thrive despite society but because of society.”

Nelen takes the real estate sector as an example. “It is an introverted world, with people who say ‘that things may happen from time to time, that there are cowboys out there’, but that in general things are done properly. Or: ‘We are not criminals’.”
De Klimop case is the largest real estate fraud case that the Netherlands has had so far. More than five years ago, the public prosecutor and the police carried out raids on dozens of addresses in the Netherlands. The main suspect, Jan van Vlijmen, director of real estate enterprise Bouwfonds, was sentenced to four years imprisonment, among others for bribing and money laundering. “Van Vlijmen declared that everyone in the industry does exactly ‘as he did’. It is a separate world with its own rules. If you become involved, you have to play by its rules. The same happens in the banking sector, the Catholic Church, professional cycling. A German sociologist speaks of ‘walls of silence’. It is in everybody’s interest not to expose abuses.”  


In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do



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