Incompetence dooms a criminal endeavor

January 21, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

For days now, the media's cosmic thinkers have frantically sought deep social meaning in the attempt to bust the shapely leg of skater Nancy Kerrigan.

At first, it was assumed that a stray loony was the villain, so the immediate theory was that macho hostility toward successful women prompted the foul deed. Aren't we male creatures all beasts?

But when it turned out to be a calculated plot for potential profit, the media hysterics turned to the growth of greed, the obsessive need to win at all costs, the decline and fall of sportsmanship, and the general collapse of Western civilization.

Nah. There's no deep or widespread social meaning to any of it. Just ask yourself: Have you ever plotted to physically maim a business rival? Does anyone in your family or circle of friends do it? The answer is almost certainly no. The average person is reasonably law-abiding, except when fibbing about church donations on their tax returns, and never commits a violent or felonious act in his or her life.

The majority of serious crimes in this country are done by a small minority of misfits, most of whom are incompetents, which is why our prisons are bulging.

So if there is even a shallow social meaning to be found in the Kerrigan case, it is that amateurs should never try to do the work of professionals, even in crime.

There are some crimes suited to amateurs. Snatch a purse and run. Bust a store window, grab a radio and run. Pop a trunk, steal a golf bag and run. Shoplift a blouse and run. And if they don't try to exceed their level of incompetence, the nickel-and-dime criminals are less likely to be caught.

But serious, big-time crime requires experience, training, discipline, organization and all the other elements of success found in any endeavor. This applies to the best burglars, stickup men, cartage thieves, embezzlers, drug runners, stock manipulators, politicians and other undesirables.

That's why the American Mafia was so successful for most of this century. About 99 percent of all Mafia hits have never been solved. Why, the feds can't even find Jimmy Hoffa's old bones, much less his assassins.

This success isn't due to luck. It's a combination of the many elements that go into any professional skill: training, dedication, a grasp of fundamentals, an attention to the tiniest details, and knowing enough to keep your big yap shut.

Yes, the flapping yap. More than anything else, that's the biggest failing of the amateur criminal. They brag, and they blab.

We read about these boobs all the time.

There are the women unhappy in marriage who want to be rid of their husbands without the expense and drudgery of going to court. So they ask a bartender if he happens to know someone who might bump off the worthless spouse.

The bartender says, "Uh-huh" and tips off the cops. Then the cops send an undercover guy to pose as a potential hit man, listen to the proposition and arrest the unhappy wife, who later indignantly sniffs: "You just can't trust anyone." Which, in such matters, is true. You want a confidential relationship, talk to your priest or your doctor, but not to some guy at the corner bar.

I recall the case of the grumpy businessman who wanted his wife done away with. Who did he hire? An out-of-town pro? No, he shaved expenses by giving the job to his building's janitor. The instant the cops glared at him, the janitor confessed all. Would the businessman have hired a janitor to do a triple bypass or maintain his accounts? Of course not. Yet he entrusted an amateur with the serious business of bumping off his wife. And businessmen are supposed to be so smart.

So, by the time everything comes out in the Kerrigan attack, which it all will, we'll find that a crew of really dumb amateurs took on a highly professional challenge. And that some of them couldn't keep their mouths shut. They will have talked to relatives or friends. And what kinds of relatives or friends do these klutzes have? Their fellow klutzes.

These are society's fringe people. Not homeless or down-and-out. But not successful, either. The kind of fringe losers who drift from job to job, address to address, short on skill and brains, but looking to make a score. An ex-bouncer, a martial-arts lout and a live-in ex-husband who thinks that being on network TV -- even as a felony suspect -- is a form of success. You can find people like them in the novels of John D. MacDonald or Elmore Leonard. Or the cells of big-city police stations.

But instead of breaking into garages and stealing snowblowers, which would have been their level of criminal competence, this bunch happened to leech onto an exceptional female athlete who had the potential to make a fortune.

Now, Tonya Harding -- whether she knew of the plot or didn't -- is basically washed up. The rest of the crowd will probably wind up peering through prison bars.

And if there is a social message, it is this: It's harder and harder to find good help these days.

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