The Honor of Thieves in the Paris Métro

 

This video has gone viral in France. I couldn’t find a version subtitled in English, so I’ll walk you through it with a rough translation.

A particular kind of pickpocket works the early-morning shift in the Métro. They target passengers who are trying to get a few extra winks in before work, or people who are still drunk after partying all night. “The corpse robbers of dawn,” the cops call them.

The scene below was recorded by a security camera. Police officer Emmanuelle Oster, who’s narrating, is the chief of investigations for Paris transportation.

Officer Oster:

Here’s the approach technique. He [the pickpocket] is going to sit by him. He pushes on his knee to see if the gentleman is sleeping.

I tap with my hand on one side, I see what he has in his pocket — some keys, a phone, something that interests me? And now, done with the the right pocket, time for the left.”

Characteristic. An infraction. A theft.

And now we see a passenger appear. It’s very obvious from his behavior that he’s a commuter waiting for his morning train.

And now? [as the victim stands up] What’s going on in his head, I don’t know. Look, he’s — I’ll pause.

The frame freezes, and she points:

Look [at the victim]. He doesn’t look well. He’s doubled over, he even looks as if he might vomit. Anyone would say, “Look, he really isn’t okay, he’s sick.”

The clip starts again:

And there [pointing] — the passenger sees it. And you’re going to see that the victim is staggering. Until now, it’s possible the passenger didn’t understand. But now, it’s impossible he doesn’t grasp that the guy is completely drunk. And he watches him approach the precipice — look, he’s two centimeters away — and his hands are still in his pockets.

He sees it. There is absolutely no doubt about it. But his attitude doesn’t change.

And he falls. [Pointing] Voilà. The fall is there, the person is here. Look at the passenger’s attitude. He turns around and walks the other direction, with his hands still in his pockets.

So. He saw. He saw that there was absolutely no danger to him. The train arrives. That still doesn’t move him. Not only might the man be knocked out, electrocuted, killed — but there’s a risk of him being crushed by the train.

The camera turns to Officer Oster:

At no moment did this passenger do a single positive thing to help. He didn’t sound the emergency alarm, interrupt anything, rush toward him, raise his arms, cry out  …. he just left. Totally indifferent. Like a coward, very obviously.

And paradoxically, the author of the crime came to his assistance. Look at the thief. The thief comes running.

And there’s the passenger, who certainly saw the man fall — with his hands still in his pockets. He didn’t say or do anything — and now he’s even about to get on the train.

It’s the thief who’s running to save him. He’s about to extend his hand and pull him out.

Narrator:

By luck, the young man wasn’t hurt — he was just a bit stunned. Thanks to his pickpocket, he no doubt narrowly escaped the worst.

Officer Oster:

This reflex to help, it clearly shows that there’s humanity there. The thief didn’t react like a thief, he reacted like a human being, telling himself, “Maybe I’m a thief, maybe I’m a bastard because I’m a thief, but I’m not so much of a bastard that I’d let this person be electrocuted.” And you see him running toward the individual. So you see that humanity got the better of the thief.

Perhaps it’s an elegant lesson. In every thief, perhaps there’s a human being. And in everyone who passively does nothing, perhaps there’s a bastard.

As you can see from her body language, she was stunned that a commuter could blithely turn around and ignore the sight of a passenger staggering on to the tracks. I am too.

But she seems equally stunned that the pickpocket ran to help. I’m not surprised: How could anyone ignore that?

Perhaps if you’re chief of transport investigations in Paris, you become just that cynical about thieves and pickpockets — to the point of saying, “there might be a human being in some of them.”

For those of you who work in law enforcement: Have you ever seen anything like that? On a security camera or live? Would you be surprised to see a pickpocket do that? I certainly wasn’t surprised to see that there could be honor among thieves. But perhaps that’s the innocence of someone who doesn’t spend her life hunting them down and arresting them.

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  1. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    … or those of you who work with criminals?  I don’t much anymore, but when I did, I used to spend an extra long time in meetings with clients, because you can see that bit of humanity in virtually everyone, and when you find it, you can actually start to communicate with people.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Ryan M:… or those of you who work with criminals? I don’t much anymore, but when I did, I used to spend an extra long time in meetings with clients, because you can see that bit of humanity in virtually everyone, and when you find it, you can actually start to communicate with people.

    Virtually everyone, in my experience. I’ve also encountered people who were genuinely, irredeemably evil. But they’re rare, and I wouldn’t expect to find many of them among pickpockets.

    The horror of that video is the soullessness of the man who watched and did nothing. It doesn’t even seem to be classic Kitty Genovese effect — it looks as if they were the only ones on the platform.

    I would have to ask to find out what French law says about it, precisely, but I know the law here imposes a far more extensive more extensive duty to rescue than Anglo-American law. “Deliberately failing to provide assistance to a person in danger” can be punished by up to 5 years, I believe.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I certainly wasn’t surprised to see that there could be honor among thieves.

    I don’t believe that is the general usage of that phrase, but that matters little here. What he did was certainly the right thing to do.

    • #3
  4. Marion Evans Member
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Sorry to be skeptical but this looks a bit staged to me, especially the way he steps onto the tracks at 1:15 which looks very deliberate in a way to limit harm to himself (worth viewing again to see if you agree). He didn’t fall so much as carefully step in. The drop is a good three feet and a person could seriously injure themselves if they fall in while unconscious or semi-unconscious.

    Also the fact that the event is at the end of the platform where there is plenty of time for the train to slow down and stop. Had the driver failed to stop the train in time, the man in the well could have walked or run a few steps out of harm’s way.

    The other thing is once you see the train at 1:40, you never see the man in the well again, which means it could be a video montage with no one in the well when the train pulled in. You see him again at 2:45 but strangely, you don’t see him being pulled up. He is suddenly just sitting on the edge of the platform again.

    To what purpose? I don’t know. Maybe some psychology experiment for school. Or for publicity.

    I don’t disagree with the conclusion however. The fact that the pickpocket helped should not be a surprise. Many thieves, especially of the petty sort, don’t see themselves as bad people.

    • #4
  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Good and Evil are in all our hearts. What we let out is who we are.

    Ryan M:… or those of you who work with criminals? I don’t much anymore, but when I did, I used to spend an extra long time in meetings with clients, because you can see that bit of humanity in virtually everyone, and when you find it, you can actually start to communicate with people.

    • #5
  6. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans: To what purpose? I don’t know. Maybe some psychology experiment for school. Or for publicity.

    That seems very unlikely to me. How would they get a well-known, high-level police commissioner to go in on this? Emmanuelle Oster’s the head of the department of criminal investigation for the railways. (That’s not quite the right way to translate her title, but basically, she’s definitely not a fictional character.)

    • #6
  7. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Minding ones own business is the safe way of the world.
    So the thief ran back. Will he now be arrested for his thievery?
    The man that mined his own business, will he be ignored or will the arm of the law reach out for him now too?

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Fake John/Jane Galt:Minding ones own business is the safe way of the world. So the thief ran back. Will he now be arrested for his thievery? The man that mined his own business, will he be ignored or will the arm of the law reach out for him now too?

    I suspect that if they can ID them, they’ll both be arrested. Or may have been already.

    • #8
  9. Spin Member
    Spin
    @Spin

    I have some thieves in my family.  They are well known to be thieves.  They aren’t horrible people.  They aren’t the kind of people who would leave someone on the tracks to die.  They steal because they are addicted to drugs, or because they are dirt poor, or because, in one case, stealing has become a sort of adventure, something they do because their life lacks anything interesting.

    I guess I’m not all that surprised.

    • #9
  10. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Fake John/Jane Galt:Minding ones own business is the safe way of the world. So the thief ran back. Will he now be arrested for his thievery? The man that mined his own business, will he be ignored or will the arm of the law reach out for him now too?

    I suspect that if they can ID them, they’ll both be arrested. Or may have been already.

    I suspected as much.  You can’t even mind your own business nowadays with out it being against the law.

    • #10
  11. Marion Evans Member
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Marion Evans: To what purpose? I don’t know. Maybe some psychology experiment for school. Or for publicity.

    That seems very unlikely to me. How would they get a well-known, high-level police commissioner to go in on this? Emmanuelle Oster’s the head of the department of criminal investigation for the railways. (That’s not quite the right way to translate her title, but basically, she’s definitely not a fictional character.)

    Agree that is the weak link in my thesis. On the other hand, she seems a bit too earnest in the me-thinks-thou-doth-protest-too-much way and can’t resist closing with the philosophical point. It is also possible that the tape was doctored without her knowledge. The video is “produced” in the sense that there is a voiceover at 2:45 and music throughout, which imo hurts its credibility. Fully concede I could be wrong though.

    • #11
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Fake John/Jane Galt: I suspected as much. You can’t even mind your own business nowadays with out it being against the law.

    French law is quite different from Anglo-American law on this. I’ll defer to the lawyers among us, but as I understand it, only a few states have duty-to-rescue (criminal) laws, and the duty is usually limited to calling the police.

    And to my surprise, while looking it up, I found a report of a case with some similarities (although some important dissimilarities), and from it, a link to Eugene Volokh’s list of states with Duty to Rescue/Report laws.

    • #12
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans: can’t resist closing with the philosophical point.

    No one in France can. That’s just being French. Buy a cup of coffee, you’ll get a free philosophical point.

    It is also possible that the tape was doctored without her knowledge. The video is “produced” in the sense that there is a voiceover at 2:45 and music throughout, which imo hurts its credibility.

    Sure, someone obviously “produced” it — I think it was a clip from a documentary — but there’s no way the tape was doctored without her knowledge. (Well, no one can say “no way,” but “vanishingly small probability” sounds right, given her position and her knowledge of where the cameras are, how they work, and the fact that it’s her job to spend every single day analyzing that kind of footage and gathering from it evidence sound enough to take to court.)

    • #13
  14. La Tapada Member
    La Tapada
    @LaTapada

    Claire, I always enjoy your posts that provide some French. I took a beginners French class this past Fall semester and I enjoy getting to practice understanding the language. (I am still using the phrase, “Ne vous inquietez pas,” from your father’s hospital staff.)

    I am also always impressed with your idiomatic English translations. I work as a translator (from Spanish to English), so I have some experience in poor and awkward vs. natural sounding, idiomatic translation.

    I’ll be watching the video again, but more for the purpose of learning the phrases. Thank you.

    • #14
  15. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Fake John/Jane Galt: I suspected as much. You can’t even mind your own business nowadays with out it being against the law.

    French law is quite different from Anglo-American law on this. I’ll defer to the lawyers among us, but as I understand it, only a few states have duty-to-rescue (criminal) laws, and the duty is usually limited to calling the police.

    And to my surprise, while looking it up, I found a report of a case with some similarities (although some important dissimilarities), and from it, a link to Eugene Volokh’s list of states with Duty to Rescue/Report laws.

    Duty to rescue is an interesting concept.  I prefer the Good Samaritan laws, although the fact that there is a need for either is disturbing.

    I’m inclined to say that there should be no legal duty to rescue/report. When you are attempting to impose morality on a culture that does not possess it naturally, there is something too wrong for your laws to fix.  Much of this is social, and I think the legal aspect lags.  I make a similar argument in regards to marriage…

    • #15
  16. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @LauraKoch

    I’m not in law enforcement but my husband is. I showed him the video and asked if he was surprised a normal citizen did nothing while the thief reacted and his response was no because he finds “thieves often have less of a passive personality and more risk taking traits, generally speaking”. He also said petty criminals are not generally sociopathic in his experience and many are genuinely decent people, though he’s never seen anything like this himself. Apparently the viral video from somehwere in the US of an arrested man kicking the cell door and yelling to alert the other cops his guard is having a heart attack is widely played for police trainees in Canada, somewhat similar to this, and a good sociology lesson in my opinion, but it probably shouldn’t be too broadly extrapolated if you want to go home safely every night.

    • #16
  17. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Laura Koch:I’m not in law enforcement but my husband is. I showed him the video and asked if he was surprised a normal citizen did nothing while the thief reacted and his response was no because he finds “thieves often have less of a passive personality and more risk taking traits, generally speaking”. He also said petty criminals are not generally sociopathic in his experience and many are genuinely decent people, though he’s never seen anything like this himself. Apparently the viral video from somehwere in the US of an arrested man kicking the cell door and yelling to alert the other cops his guard is having a heart attack is widely played for police trainees in Canada, somewhat similar to this, and a good sociology lesson in my opinion, but it probably shouldn’t be too broadly extrapolated if you want to go home safely every night.

    Exactly.

    If the lesson you’re drawing is “Thieves are honorable, while ordinary people are not,” then you’re quite wrong.  Even the “honor among thieves” phrase is wrong.  The only lesson is that people are people, and that our actions do not necessarily define us, and our station – even chosen station – likewise does not necessarily restrain us.

    If you walk into a Christian Church, you will see people who lie and cheat and gossip and betray…  you will find a room full of sinners, just the same as if you walk into any other room in the world.  Presumably – and hopefully – the Christians in the Church are self-aware and actively taking steps to be better people, and to repent when they are not.  Obviously, the fact that a person is a thief shows some commitment to sinful behavior and come callousness to other human beings.  That is an indicator, but it is not something that eliminates what we might call “natural law,” or his conscience, or his humanity, or whatever.  All of those external factors are still useful and they are signals and they do actually indicate how a person is likely to behave.  But … people are still people.

    • #17
  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    La Tapada: I am also always impressed with your idiomatic English translations. I work as a translator (from Spanish to English), so I have some experience in poor and awkward vs. natural sounding, idiomatic translation.

    Thank you! But now you’re making me feel bad because I translated quite casually, and I didn’t point out some of the subtleties of the phrases she used — the way she mimicked a more casual street argot when explaining the pickpocket’s thinking, for example. Mine was definitely not a high-level, professional translation. I was just doing it roughly, without really trying to capture all the subtleties. If you have any questions about the sentences or the phrases she used, please ask!

    • #18
  19. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Laura Koch: “thieves often have less of a passive personality and more risk taking traits, generally speaking”. He also said petty criminals are not generally sociopathic in his experience

    That makes a lot of sense. But it doesn’t make sense of the passivity of the bystander, who could have sounded the alarm at no risk to himself. As the officer pointed out, he didn’t even scream or wave his hands. He didn’t even react — he was prepared to just get right on the next car and go about his day.

    • #19
  20. La Tapada Member
    La Tapada
    @LaTapada

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    La Tapada: I am also always impressed with your idiomatic English translations. I work as a translator (from Spanish to English), so I have some experience in poor and awkward vs. natural sounding, idiomatic translation.

    Thank you! But now you’re making me feel bad because I translated quite casually, and I didn’t point out some of the subtleties of the phrases she used — the way she mimicked a more casual street argot when explaining the pickpocket’s thinking, for example. Mine was definitely not a high-level, professional translation. I was just doing it roughly, without really trying to capture all the subtleties. If you have any questions about the sentences or the phrases she used, please ask!

    Don’t feel bad. With more time and a different purpose it’s fun and challenging to try to communicate the argot exactly, but I figure that’s not your purpose here. Your on-the-fly translations generally sound like real English sounds and I think that’s a skill.

    • #20
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Ryan M: If the lesson you’re drawing is “Thieves are honorable, while ordinary people are not,” then you’re quite wrong

    Oh, I certainly didn’t draw that lesson. I was surprised, though, that Officer Oster was so astonished. (Not that she was astonished by the cowardice of the bystander, but so astonished by the behavior of the pickpocket.)

    She’d be a fascinating person to interview. The Paris Métro is a whole universe unto itself. An article about its history and the way it’s policed could be wonderful to research.

    • #21
  22. Spin Member
    Spin
    @Spin

    Fake John/Jane Galt: I suspected as much. You can’t even mind your own business nowadays with out it being against the law

    I would argue that if “minding your own business” means not helping someone in a dire situation, we are indeed over the cliff…

    • #22
  23. Laura Koch Member
    Laura Koch
    @LauraKoch

    Claire,
    No, it makes no sense of the bystander’s lack of any reaction at all. Certainly not the first time someone almost died or even died as a result of the same mentality. I don’t know if the guy was a sociopath or just didn’t want to “get involved” but either way it’s disturbing. I imagine it’s more common in big cities… but if I can say something in favour of the Paris Metro, when I was there a couple days ago I saw a man take a Muslim woman’s double stroller with her two kids in it and carry it up two high flights of stairs for her, he didn’t think twice, just sort of knew he should help. Perhaps not a big deal in the scheme of things but it warmed my heart after seeing so many soldiers with assault rifles everywhere and being reminded of why they were there.

    • #23
  24. Marion Evans Member
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Ryan M: If the lesson you’re drawing is “Thieves are honorable, while ordinary people are not,” then you’re quite wrong

    Oh, I certainly didn’t draw that lesson. I was surprised, though, that Officer Oster was so astonished. (Not that she was astonished by the cowardice of the bystander, but so astonished by the behavior of the pickpocket.)

    She’d be a fascinating person to interview. The Paris Métro is a whole universe unto itself. An article about its history and the way it’s policed could be wonderful to research.

    I stopped riding it when they abolished first class (jk). Seriously, it did have a first class until the “abolitionnistes” finally won in 1991 after a 33-year struggle.

    • #24
  25. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Marion Evans: Seriously, it did have a first class until the “abolitionnistes” finally won in 1991 after a 33-year struggle.

    I remember the first class. I also remember the signs telling everyone to give up their seats for the mutilés de guerre.*

    I’m trying to remember when they finally took those down.

    *Mutilated by war.

    • #25
  26. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Ryan M: If the lesson you’re drawing is “Thieves are honorable, while ordinary people are not,” then you’re quite wrong

    Oh, I certainly didn’t draw that lesson. I was surprised, though, that Officer Oster was so astonished. (Not that she was astonished by the cowardice of the bystander, but so astonished by the behavior of the pickpocket.)

    She’d be a fascinating person to interview. The Paris Métro is a whole universe unto itself. An article about its history and the way it’s policed could be wonderful to research.

    oh, I didn’t think you (or anyone, really) did.  I was just illustrating what I thought was the right lesson by pointing out the wrong one.

    • #26
  27. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Perhaps it’s an elegant lesson. In every thief, perhaps there’s a human being. And in everyone who passively does nothing, perhaps there’s a bastard.

    What a great great line…..

    • #27
  28. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Spin:

    Fake John/Jane Galt: I suspected as much. You can’t even mind your own business nowadays with out it being against the law

    I would argue that if “minding your own business” means not helping someone in a dire situation, we are indeed over the cliff…

    Maybe we are.  But we now live in a world where sticking your nose into a situation.  In this case helping this idiot that jumped in front of a train is a good way to open oneself up to scrutiny.  Maybe some people do not want every detail of their life examined by law enforcement, media, and all the other powers that be as they try to spin their narratives for their own reasons.  But now it does not matter.  Since I have no doubt that the thief was arrested for his actions and the person that ignored it will be examined and found guilty of something.  All the while as social media hammers away at their identities and actions.

    • #28
  29. Kaladin Member
    Kaladin
    @Kaladin

    There are a few other ways to look at it.  Perhaps the bystander thought, “maybe if one of these drunks die someone will put more security officers down here, which will then cut down on the crime…like pickpocketing”.

    The pickpocket along the same lines thought “crap if this drunk dies down here maybe they will place more security officers down here and it will make my life much harder.”

    Or even simpler, “a dead guy can only be pickpocketed once”.

    Or the “common bystander” was actually a criminal of a more sociopathic sort.

    The possibilities are endless.

    • #29
  30. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: it doesn’t make sense of the passivity of the bystander, who could have sounded the alarm at no risk to himself. As the officer pointed out, he didn’t even scream or wave his hands. He didn’t even react — he was prepared to just get right on the next car and go about his day.

    Being unfamiliar with subways of any sort…

    Are we 100% certain that he both 1) saw the event transpiring from his position and 2) processed the events mentally to understand the impending death of the other guy?

    From the video, the elapsed time is unclear to me.

    Maybe it just looked like he was callous from the camera angle but he didn’t realize? Maybe he was thinking of something else and didn’t realize what was happening?

    I don’t want to absolve the guilty, but I also don’t want to indict the innocent.

    • #30

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