Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,’” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.
“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?’”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.’”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”
Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
Unfortunately my finals period has just begun, so I don’t have enough time to properly devote to this story, because it demonstrates so many things about the origins of crime, the purpose of a criminal justice system, the efficacy of punishment versus harm prevention, the alleviation of poverty as a crime-fighting measure, and much more.
All I really want to put forth to you is this: Diaz did not get angry when the boy pointed a knife at him. He did not get angry that his wallet was being stolen. He did not become filled with a vindictive sense of outrage and subsequent lust for retribution when the teenager threatened his life in order to obtain his wallet. Why? Because he never failed to remember that the boy holding the knife cannot be minimized to a simple label: “Criminal.”
Crime is not committed by criminals. Crime is committed by human beings. And human beings are complex, incentivized, internally inconsistent, self-misunderstanding creatures, possessed of a moral agency which is complicated by multifarious facets, thoughts, influences, incentives, designs, considerations, pressures and motivations. It is the failure to apprehend the humanity of the “criminal” in our criminal justice system that has lead to its current sorry state: a recidivist-driven two-tiered system in which justice is as blind as the rage that fuels the mobs who call for its application to the fictitious “criminal.”
Diaz, on the other hand, had no rage. And consequently, he saw the boy perfectly. Think on it awhile.