More Camembert, Less Crime

by Kieran Healy on July 13, 2007

Via Unfogged, “a key piece of empirical evidence”: in the gun control debate. Faced with an intruder attempting to rob them at gunpoint, the homeowners responded successfully with wine and cheese. Merely brandishing the Camembert and bottle of Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry was not sufficient, though: they were discharged, but without injury to either party, or indeed the party itself.



P O'Neill 07.13.07 at 6:42 pm

I can see the intruder doing a Dr No style “That’s a 1956 Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry — it would be a shame to break it.”


"Q" the Enchanter 07.13.07 at 7:21 pm

As a general strategy, this is impractical. You can’t just leave the bottle uncorked on the off-chance that an oenophiliac burglar will be stopping by; nor is there any indication that this intruder would have been inclined to wait for the bottle to breathe. No, it won’t work.


Dan Miller 07.13.07 at 8:36 pm

I think you’re stretching–you have no data on the cholesterol levels of either the robber or the victims (although I suppose it might be mitigated by the wine).


P O'Neill 07.13.07 at 8:43 pm

Ah. Not long for the Corner to have the GWOT angle

Arms are for Hugging [Stanley Kurtz]

Andy [McCarthy], if you really want to know what’s behind the fantasy that Islamist groups can be bought off and disarmed by democratic inclusion, the answer is right here [links to the wine/hug story]. This is the fantasy–and once in a very great while it comes true. But it’s still a fantasy.


jacob 07.13.07 at 9:11 pm

Seems a bit unsporting for them to have called the police, especially given that detail at the end about his leaving the glass in the alley unbroken.


engels 07.13.07 at 9:23 pm

What Jacob said. Actually, I’d say it was bad faith. Well, bad faith is probably permissible in such a situation – it seems to be the norm in hostage negotiations – but it still kind of spoils the story for me.


Shelby 07.13.07 at 9:26 pm

If it’s unsporting to call the police after a burglar holds a gun to a 14-year-old girl’s head, then I’ve plainly been using the wrong methods to crash parties.


engels 07.13.07 at 9:32 pm

No, Shelby, it’s dishonest to implicitly offer someone an amnesty and then renege on it. Not to say that it’s wrong: all things considered, it was probably still the most responsible thing to do.


John Emerson 07.13.07 at 10:06 pm

Shows the power of etiquette and graciousness. Confucius would approve.


shub-negrorath 07.14.07 at 1:55 am

I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the peanut-gallery commenters, even the pro-gun ones, conceding that the John McClane reponse probably wouldn’t have been optimal under the circumstances.

But then, a surprising number of individuals were apparently unable to accept that nonviolence can sometimes triumph over violence, concluding instead that the Post must have made the whole story up. I supposed that’s one way of coping with cognitive dissonance.


Martin Bento 07.14.07 at 4:14 am

The case for dealing in good faith with kidnappers, of course, is that other potential kidnappers will observe and take account in their own future actions. For individuals, I imagine this is weak. Behaviors are idiosyncratic, so one person’s may not be a good indicator of another’s. Police are a different matter, as what governments generally do can be taken to reflect policy. For this reason, I tend to favor the police dealing with kidnappers in good faith. This assumes that at least a significant percentage of kidnappers are rational in pursuing their aims; that seems to me likely, although this example may be an exception.

The impression I get from popular culture is that, in America at least, police do not feel they should deal with kidnappers in good faith. I imagine kidnappers have gotten the same message, which makes them much more dangerous. I’d like to think the police thought out their policy in these terms, but I doubt it. Clint Eastwood’s famous reference to the killing of a hostage as “making his day” by giving him the chance to retaliate just seemed heroic to too many people for me.


yabonn 07.14.07 at 9:08 am

That kind of sissiness is what put our children at risk – now the kidnapper is roaming the steets again, right? Huh? Huh?

Camembert! _I_ would have instantly retaliated with a lethal Epoisses/Munster one-two.


Backword Dave 07.14.07 at 1:06 pm

5 Where is the detail about the glass left in the alley? It seems to have been edited out when I read it.

I don’t agree that it was ‘unsporting’. Perhaps if he’d left the gun, but as I read it the story ends with ‘nut possibly on drugs and now perhaps drunk with gun still on loose’. Would you rather he crashed someone else’s house? Suppose they were teetotallers or only had Bud? What then? Calling the constabulary is the only responsible thing to do.


rea 07.14.07 at 4:18 pm

it’s dishonest to implicitly offer someone an amnesty and then renege on it

There’s a concept called “duress” that’s applicable here. If I pulled a gun on you and told you I wanted to buy your car for $20, and you agreed but later reneged, would that be dishonest of you? Maybe I should sue you for breach of contract?


engels 07.14.07 at 4:37 pm

Rea – I clearly said that their conduct wasn’t wrong, so “suing” someone for it is obviously out of the question. Also, I think the legal concept you are looking for is “necessity”, not “duress”, as the threat of force was not used to induce the behaviour in question. Anyway, just to make it quite clear, I’m not faulting any of the individuals concerned.


KCinDC 07.14.07 at 4:40 pm

But wouldn’t a recognition that the police won’t deal in good faith mean that the rational prospective kidnappers would be much less likely to kidnap in the first place, Martin?


rea 07.15.07 at 4:49 pm

a recognition that the police won’t deal in good faith

The police don’t have the authority to make bargains with criminals–only the prosecutor does. If the police say, “Tell us what you did and we won’t prosecute you”–insist on hearing it from the prosecutor.


Martin Bento 07.15.07 at 8:57 pm

I don’t think many rational kidnappers would rely on making a deal with police to which they could not compel compliance. That would not be rational in my book. As the situation develops, however, they may find themselves holding less of a hand than they anticipating and therefore have to improvise a new strategy. At that point, they may have no choice but to rely on factors they cannot control, and that is where trusting the police becomes an issue.


Tracy W 07.15.07 at 9:15 pm

Engels – where did they implicitly offer the burglar an amnesty?

Cristina Rowan offered the burglar a glass of wine, which appears to have been an honest offer. Michael Rabdau, the host, offered the burglar the whole glass, which also appears to have been an honest offer.

Then all the adults gave him a hug.

How does offering someone a glass of wine, or a bottle of wine, implicitly mean that you are offering them an amnesty?

And what exactly triggers this implicit amnesty, and where does it extend to? Does buying someone a drink in a pub trigger the implicit amnesty, or do you have to offer someone a drink in your own home? Does the offer of a glass or a bottle of wine only imply an amnesty for breaking and entering, or does it extent to other crimes such as driving without a license? And what’s the scale for offers of hospitality? Presumably inviting someone over for a five course meal means more of an implicit amnesty than offering a glass of wine? Say you discover by accident that your dinner guest is robbing your grandma’s retirement funds, can you report him to the Serious Fraud Office? Does it depend on if you served lobster or meatloaf as the main course? Should the implicit amnesty be normalised by your income so a millionaire doesn’t need to offer amnesty if they served meatloaf instead of lobster but a poverty-stricken graduate student does?

These are worrying questions that need resolving before I dare to offer someone a drink ever again.


Joshua W. Burton 07.15.07 at 9:36 pm

If you ask me, you’re all a bunch of snobs. This stuff happens in red-state kitchens, too. See: politics of hope.

I think it was actually here, several years ago, that someone noticed that the NRA refrain “when X is outlawed, only outlaws will have X” works for arbitrary predicates. If we outlawed ripe Camembert, or possibly even Morbier, the outlaws would be much, much easier to identify in a crowd.


engels 07.15.07 at 10:20 pm

Well, Tracy, why would you offer someone a drink or a hug (assuming you ever have)? Do you allow that it is possible for such an act to carry any kind of implicit meaning, eg. as a gesture of friendship or reconciliation, or is such an idea patent nonsense to a sensible, literal-minded person like yourself?


Joshua W. Burton 07.15.07 at 10:28 pm

These are worrying questions that need resolving before I dare to offer someone a drink ever again.

A gentleman, apparently, just knows. (Skip down to “Christianity and Anarchism. More here and here.)

E. M. Forster sets the barrier much lower, offering implicit amnesty only to friends. Shaw’s standard sounds more like Stephen Maturin’s; perhaps a stiff dose of Irish history is a sound basis from which to understand the name of an informer.


Joshua W. Burton 07.15.07 at 10:38 pm

Rea writes:

There’s a concept called “duress” that’s applicable here.

And this, of course, cuts right to the heart of the matter. A promise made under duress is never binding, but not all coercion is duress. In particular, a gentleperson (and only a gentleperson; our institution of the same name is a debased farce) can offer parole. The theory here is that you hold a gun merely to my head, not to my honor, and that therefore in matters of honor I remain a free agent, valuing my life at a feather against my honor as of course I must.

I believe it is widely understood that an offer of hospitality in the home touches upon the honor of the host. And food and drink graciously served, never mind the group hugs, are clear hospitality markers, as a surrendered wallet as surely is not. I’d like to think I would consider myself bound if I behaved so.


Tracy W 07.15.07 at 10:59 pm

Engels – when does friendship require overlooking crimes like holding a gun to your guest’s head?

I find the problem with reading things into an offer is that it’s not clear if the person doing the reading has the same things in the mind as the person doing the offer. In this case, the newspaper reports I’ve read do not have the host saying something like “Here, have a glass of wine and we’ll forget all about it”. So you are reading an implicit offer into the hosts and guests’ heads, which surprised me as I don’t read any such thing into the offer of a glass of wine.

So if there is an implicit offer in a glass of wine in itself, even if not any accompanied by any words, I’d like to know when it applies and what the limits are. After all, I am a rather literal person, but I don’t think I’m a sensible person so I’d prefer some clarity around the point rather than relying on my sense. If I’m going to be making implicit offers whenever I give someone a hug or a glass of wine, then I’d like to know the limits of the offers.

As to why I would offer a comparative stranger a drink? Reasons include:
– I see they’re thirsty and want to relieve that
– I want them to praise the wine I’m supplying
– I’m trying to get something from them, which may include getting out with my life, as in the hypothetical case where a gun-wielding stranger enters my house
– I’m grateful to them in some way, for example I love their blog.
– I’m interested in starting an acquaintance.
– I already owe them a drink.
About the only reason I’d offer a comparative stranger a hug is that they look very distressed and lonely and in need of some human touch. As you may have guessed I am not American.
So to summarise I have offered a drink or a hug for reasons that do not include wanting to make a gesture of friendship or reconciliation. All in all, I think anyone looking for an amnesty from a glass of wine offered by me should try and get at least a verbal statement of what they think I’m offering. At least until Engels has clarified what these implicit offers are all about.


engels 07.15.07 at 11:27 pm

Tracy – I agree it’s only one possible reading of the situation. Having only read (skimmed, in fact) the newspaper article, I don’t know whether that reading is correct. Evidence which might bear on the issue as to whether it is might be include the opinions of the guests and the robber on why they acted as they did and how they interpreted the behaviour of the others. I can easily think of other perfectly legitimate readings. But I think that it is a possible reading.

“Implicit amnesty” was a brisk response to Shelby, not a claim I wish to defend literally. The claim is “bad faith”. Here’s an example of behaviour which I think would be in bad faith. I get in a fight with someone in a bar, for whatever reason. He has me pinned to the bar and is about to strike me. I say to him “Calm down, let’s have drink” and I buy him a drink. We both finish our beers amicably, he turns his back to leave and at that point I jump him from behind and beat him up. Do you think there is nothing untoward about such behaviour?


Tracy W 07.16.07 at 10:55 pm

Well yes. The right to self-defense is only a right against imminent attack – otherwise the right thing to do is to call the cops.


engels 07.17.07 at 12:45 am

Ok, my final question was misleading. The issue is not whether it was “the right thing to do” but whether I did anything dishonest.


lemuel pitkin 07.17.07 at 6:20 pm

I’m with Engles. The offer of wine and cheese moved the intruder from the category of “robber” to “guest”. This had obvious advantages for the hosts — they weren’t robbed — and it was dishonest of them to reap those advantages without shouldering the corresponding obligations.


lemuel pitkin 07.17.07 at 6:21 pm

Engels, too.


Romy B. 07.17.07 at 6:36 pm

Camembert? Nope– it tends to get a bit runny, often much runnier than the burglar would prefer. Instead, I keep a slab of Venezuelan beaver cheese around the house: the stuff lasts forever and does the trick every time.

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