Can a crime make our world better? Crimes are the worst of humanity’s wrongs but, oddly, they sometimes do more than anything else to improve our lives. As it turns out, it is often the outrageousness itself that does the work. Ordinary crimes are accepted as the background noise of our everyday existence but some crimes make people stop and take notice – because they are so outrageous, or so curious, or so heart-wrenching. These “trigger crimes” are the cases that this book is about.
They offer some incredible stories about how people, good and bad, change the world around them by energizing, or disgusting, the rest of us. The images are striking: a burning river, a hundred poisoned children, falling flaming bodies, four dead little girls in their Sunday best, collapsing skyscrapers, and indifferent police watching a wife get beaten.
The stories show us how a single individual can make an enormous difference. The mother whose daughter is killed by a drunk driver ends up changing the way we think about drunk driving. The government attorney who figures out how to protect witnesses against the Mafia creates a flood of organized crime defections. A black minister who creates his own vigilante squad starts the war on drugs.
The stories also show how far we have come even within the memory of people still living. We take for granted much of the world around us, but things were very different not long ago. Imagine a world where stores regularly sell contaminated food and adulterated drugs, where many buildings are veritable death traps, and where flagrant financial wrongdoing is accepted as a natural corollary to capitalism. This is our not-too-distant past.
Perhaps most striking in these tales is what they reveal about the nature of progress. We would like to think it is orderly and rational, but in truth it is often chaotic and unpredictable. Who would have guessed that a single kidnapping would create the federalization of criminal law, that a particular sniper would lead to the creation of SWAT teams, or that an attack on a New York Street would inspire the national 9-1-1 system? At the same time, the stories are comforting in the apparent inevitability of American progress. Our progress may be messy but it is relentless.
As a bonus, the stories, presented in chronological order, walk the reader through some of the most interesting parts of American social and political history: the Progressive era of the 1900s, Prohibition in the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the inward focus of the post-World War II 1950s, the social revolution of the 1960s, the rise of global terrorism in the 1970s and militant Islam in the 1980s, and the expansion of the global economy in the 2000s.
The book’s ultimate success is in presenting riveting accounts of human stories that taken together provide important insights into foundational issues like the nature of social progress.
Presented here is the first chapter of the book: the story of the 1911 Triangle Factory fire, which was horrific in its effect and came at just the right time of political and social development so as to trigger a widespread outrage that ultimately led to a tectonic shift in how our society, and eventually the world, dealt with building safety.