Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2014 Issue

A Tale of Two Thieves

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12-year-old girl with “I steal” sign.

Two book thefts from Asia recently made the newswires. The outcome of both is surprising to western ears. However, this really isn’t a story about the difference in treatment of book theft between two Asian countries, or between Asian countries and the West. It is more a story of a difference in treatment between individuals. To put it another way, the title of this tale could also have been “It’s not what you did, but who you are.” Some people are judged by different standards than others, and generally it has to do with how powerful you are. This story might just as easily have arisen in the West as Asia.

 

The first story comes from the Kashmir region of India. According to the Greater Kashmir website, hundreds of books are missing from the library in Srinagar, a city of over one million people. They were not snuck out in someone’s briefcase, under a jacket, or in the dead of night. Over the past couple of decades, they have simply been “borrowed” and never returned. It seems highly unlikely there was ever an intention to return them when they were “borrowed.” Securing their return looks next to impossible. The reason is that the “borrowers” were government officials. Being an official of the law, of course, means you are above it. This is not a concept unique to Asia.

 

Greater Kashmir quotes a library staffer plaintively saying, “There is little hope we can retrieve the lost books because those who owe these are now VVIPs. They may not bother to respond to our notice.” Many of the books are described as of “high archival value.” The officials would claim they needed the books for research, but never return them. It seems there is just not much that can be done when the thieves are important government personalities.

 

The second story takes us to Vietnam. According to Thanh Nien News, a 12-year-old girl walked into a supermarket and picked out two books she wanted to read. Unfortunately, she had no money with her at the time. The seventh grader really wanted to read the books, so she made a bad choice. She slipped the books under her jacket and walked out the door. When she did, the books set off the store’s alarm system.

 

Store employees evidently wanted to teach the young lady a lesson. They demanded she write a report detailing her wrongdoing, including giving her name, school, and family contacts, or they would call the police. When she declined, they did not call her parents or the police. Instead, they taped her arms to a railing by the front door of the store and hung a sign around her neck confessing her crime. Then they took photographs of her and posted them online.

 

The family reports that the girl has suffered severe shock. They say she is constantly crying and avoids friends. Her father was quoted as saying that when she does wrong, her family will punish her. He described this as “an act of humiliation, not deterrence.”

 

The value of the two books was $0.93.

 

Certainly, some sort of discipline was in order. You can’t steal things even if they are worth less than a dollar. Being caught itself must have been terribly embarrassing and, with a good lecture, a reasonable amount of discipline. The store employees could have called in the parents, resulting in further embarrassment and discipline at home. They could have warned her that another violation would result in the police being called, or she being banned from the store for life. They could have told her that reading books is a good thing, something to be encouraged, but you still cannot take books from a store unless you pay for them. Perhaps they could have steered her toward the nearest library. This could have been an excellent teaching opportunity to guide a young lady with a desire to read in the right direction. The opportunity was wasted.

 

These two stories are unrelated. Still….. Is anyone surprised by who was allowed to get away with a large theft, and who was cruelly humiliated for a small one? No, I don’t think so.

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