Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The Meaning of Automobile Theft; or, Why do People Steal Cars?
For far more on automobile theft see my and Rebecca Morales Stealing Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to Gran Torino (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014).
Automobile theft is a crime at the margins of American life. Yet, it also reflects themes that are at the core of modern existence, and what it means to be human. For the thief, the act can be a vicarious experience. It is a moment that Jeffrey T. Schnapp suggests vaults the perpetrator into "the world as its conqueror, rule and judge." In a classic role reversal, the often clever and technologically adept thief gains freedom at the expense of an "unhorsed" owner, who has lost autonomy and identity. Additionally, the criminal, usually from the periphery of society, moves, albeit temporarily, into a life "of bigger living," a world in which class distinctions and material possessions have been temporarily suspended. 1
Even though auto theft is statistically in decline, it is such a common occurrence in America that we hardly take notice of it happening -- unless the car is ours. Insurance industry statistics tell us that currently (2013) a car is stolen every 33 seconds and that if we were to string out the annual total of stolen cars bumper to bumper, the line would stretch from New York City to Phoenix. Auto theft, then, may not be central to our everyday lives, but is far from inconsequential, particularly when it is directly related to more serious crime.
Many Americans have directly or indirectly experienced the theft of a car, our most prized possession after our homes. Our personal experiences, however, capture only a portion of the complexity and changing nature of auto theft in the US from the early days to the present. Accordingly, several questions stand out. Most significantly, who steals cars, what are their motives, and how has the crime changed over time? Is it the drug of speed and thrills, sovereign individualism, easy money, wanting what one does not have, race and class antagonisms, the need for transportation, repressed sexual impulses, boredom, or something else? Or in this case, as Sarah S. Lochlann Jain suggests, when we focus on this criminal aspect of the automobile and culture “freedom meets regulation and a potential for individuation rubs uneasily against actualized homogeneity.”2 Furthermore, the story gets more convoluted when we go beyond the thieves to the motives of those owners whose cars are stolen. Why did so many Americans up to and through the 1960s leave their keys in their cars, purportedly objects that were loved and often considered part of the family? Moving from the individuals to the machines, questions surface concerning what anti-theft measures were incorporated into the cars coming off the assembly line, and the thousands of inventors’ aftermarket technologies? Automobile theft affords not only opportunities for inventors to create devices to thwart thieves, but also for thieves to use creative means to overcome ingenious locks and electronic alarms. When the focus shifts from people and objects to space, an examination of why some places are hot spots for auto theft and others relatively safe begs to be explored. And in an age in which transnational topics are widely discussed, it is pertinent to ask how international forces work to the advantage of thieves?
But why take time to tell this history at the margins? The narrative is not about luscious cars or creative engineers and businessmen, but about everyday people, both lawbreakers and victims. Fundamentally, however, it is a telling tale about a significant slice of the American past. The topic also fits well in the direction in which the recent historiography in automobile history seems to be going, away from a focus on producers and toward users, even if those users happen to be thieves and joy riders. And it illustrates one example of just how central the automobile has been to American life during the twentieth century and beyond.
Although, the meaning of auto theft in the history of twentieth century American life remains somewhat unclear, one conclusion is that the auto thief steals an owner’s freedom, both literally and figuratively. Consequently, and as mentioned previously, movement is transformed into immobility, and vice-versa. As the Brazilian literary scholar Guilllermo Guicci has argued in a different context, the deed marks “the demise of an illusion and the loss of the hope of salvation through acceleration.”3 Going a bit further and drawing on the insights of English sociologist John Urry, this sacred thing called the car is central to the modernization of urban life, including life’s disappointments. Movement, or kinetic modernity, cannot be understood however, according to Urry, without the conceptual mirror image twins of flexibility and coercion. And indeed, the history of auto theft is intimately tied to the interplay of these notions. And in this case, some of those automotive users -- thieves unlucky enough to be caught -- end up with the ultimate loss of freedom, sentenced to jail or prison.
Thus, the history of automobile theft in twentieth century America bridges the interstices of science, psychology, economics, technology, and society. As such, it is a powerful handle in exploring the foundations of criminal motives, techniques, and organization; the development of a variety of anti-theft technological countermeasures; the rise of institutional rejoinders from government, the insurance industry, and manufacturers; the environmental solutions created by city planners and architects; and finally, opportunities, challenges, and diplomatic and legal relations among nations in an international society. Additionally, it is a story that has taken place with recurring cycles. During every era authorities proclaimed that auto theft had been largely solved. Yet, subsequent to every announcement, new criminal strategies thwarted the best of efforts, and the problem became bigger than ever. Only in the recent past have we experienced a statistical decline in this criminal activity.Curiously, even though victims who feel personally violated abound and the cost of auto theft to Americans remains sky high, culturally--in literature and film--the auto thief is frequently lionized. The act is often characterized as victimless--as long as the owner has insurance--and the professional car thief is seen as a clever hero, satisfying personal urges that reflect the central values of traditional American car culture, namely, masculinity, status, and freedom. In sum, as long it is not our car, the bad guys are not so bad.