"Shoplifter raises moral questions

So, anyway, there I am standing in line at Wal-Mart, which is pure hell on Earth this time of year. I’d already finished looking at the tabloid headlines and impulse-buy items near the checkout lane when I noticed the woman in front of me.

She was semi cute, a white chick in her mid- to late-20s wearing a smart blue coat and matching hat. There were about 40 items in her cart and it took her several minutes to unload them all for scanning.

Her purse was on the upper rack of the cart and, next to it, was a small sample-sized packet of gourmet coffee. While the cashier was finishing up with the customer in front of her, the woman looked around and quickly threw the package of coffee into her purse.

It didn’t make sense to me. Why would this woman risk getting busted for shoplifting over a $3 package of coffee? She certainly had enough money to pay for the other 39 items in her cart, which came to something like $80. She’d just decided on an impulse to steal the coffee.

For me, it was a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment. Should I play the Larry David role and verbally accost the woman? Should I rat her out to the cashier or the security guard? Was it even my business if she shoplifted items or not?

In the end, I decided against it. I was in a hurry and the wife was sick at home awaiting the Campbell’s soup, Pop-Tarts and Sam’s Choice Diet Cola I was bearing in my role as breadwinner. I didn’t want to get involved.

But the situation stuck in my mind for quite some time. Had I violated some sort of moral code by not being a narc? Was this woman a coffee-stealing kleptomaniac who was running around shoplifting from Starbucks? Had I missed out on a valuable reward from Crimestoppers?

Would there have been a headline in the daily paper saying, “Hero columnist breaks up coffee cartel”? We will never know, because I minded my own business, paid for my shit and left.

I’ve never understood shoplifters, possibly because I’m too much of a pussy to get away with any crime. If someone left me alone in a bank vault, I might risk helping myself to some stacks of hundreds, but I certainly wouldn’t steal a pack of gum or a container of hazelnut coffee.

I’d have no qualms over embezzling millions from the state government but, for some reason, I have a moral prohibition when it comes to petty crime.

Later, I asked the wife if I’d done the right thing. She looked at me like I was a particularly dim-witted child.

“This is Wal-Mart we’re talking about,” she reminded me. “They have billions of dollars to spare. It’s not like the loss of the coffee is going to bankrupt them. Their employees wouldn’t get health insurance if you’d turned in the woman. Forget about it.”

We agreed that it wasn’t worth getting involved over such a small theft but that if it’d been a $300 item, there’d be some sort of a moral obligation to rat out the shoplifter.

Several studies confirm the obvious: Shoplifting rises dramatically during the holiday season. Just how much is unclear. Various estimates range from $10 to $16 billion in lost revenue annually due to “shrinkage,” otherwise known as theft.

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention claims that 90 percent of Americans have shoplifted at least once and that 75 percent of shoplifters are adults.

Others claim that most people steal not out of economic necessity but rather some sort of emotional need or anxiety. Whether it’s a desire to even the score, to distract themselves from sadness or just for the thrill of it, it’s clear that shoplifting is a major problem in our country.

Surprisingly, though, the same surveys claim that most theft in the workplace — as much as $25 billion — comes from employees. If you throw in so-called “time theft,” that is, time spent on extra-long breaks, surfing the Web on company time or chatting on cell phones, the figure increases to $400 billion a year.

So while I’ve never boosted a PlayStation 3 from Best Buy, my many hours looking at hornymanatee.com and reading NBA scores on company time, morally speaking, are just as big an offense.

After all, we live in a country where no one is innocent of crime. Crooked cops take payoffs, preachers molest kids and presidents lie in order to start wars that benefit their billionaire friends.

Who am I to try and stop crime by myself? Unless I had actual police powers, I couldn’t make an impact and even then it’s unlikely I could do much. Besides, my own thefts have left me unable to take the high road in any case.

It’s something to think about, as we proceed through the holiday shopping season. “Naughty” and “nice” are outdated concepts in these times, where all of us have some sort of culpability.

Merry Christmas!



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