My sixteen year old brother and two friends decided that they needed a little pocket money. They dressed in slacks or perhaps nice jeans and collared shirts. The three of them set up a table in front of a Safeway. The table had a jar on it. They draped a red cross they had fashioned over the edge of the table and sat behind it for three hours. They didn't say a word. No one asked them what they were going to do with the money. It was implied, and assumed.

At the end of the three hours, they packed up and went home, $700 richer.

Crises spawn gullibility.

The common man or woman does not question the connection between a signifier and what is conventionally signified by it.

If I have an opinion on my brother's action, it is this: many people want to help without knowing how. As far as these people know, they have given money to the Red Cross. There were no checks to write, no envelopes to mail, no time wasted out of anyone's day. They go home feeling better about themselves because they have had the chance to help. My brother was not only acting as an economic parasite, but also serving a useful social function. He was filling a need.

I am proud of him for this and many other things.

Classic law school question: If a man shoots a person, he is guilty of what? Murder. If a man shoots a person who is sleeping, he is guilty of what? Murder. But if it turns out later that the man being attacked was already dead, what is he guilty of? Attempted murder. You can't kill a person who is already dead, but you could conspire to kill someone (or attempt to kill someone) who isn't alive. In the heart of the person doing the act, there is guilt and accountability. The person knew they were doing a wrong act.

How does this apply?

The person who collected money isn't guilty of fraud. The crime of fraud requires that a person actively try to swindle someone. It involves the active process of lying to another human being in order to trick them into giving up some goods. He did nothing of the sort. Nor is the person guilty of extortion; as he did not use the threat of force. The person who collected money in the above scenario is guilty of petty theft, however, he did not steal from the people he collected from... he stole from the Red Cross, strangely enough.

Since the people believed that they were giving money to a charitable organization, they were in fact doing so. They had, by their simple act, given money to the Red Cross. By not turning this money over to the correct people, he is in essence stealing what is morally and in this case, legally theirs. If he had sat there in front of the store with a blank can and no sign, he would have been in the clear; those people would legally have been handing over their money to the person. He would not be implictly lying about the scheme.

The man stole $700 from the Red Cross, and could in fact get sued for such, and I'd bet all he thought was that he was taking some pocket change off of some suckers. Strange, how it all works, no? The legal system finds ways to punish those who do complex moral wrongs by reinterpreting itself, and rethinking itself; that is one of its strengths.

Not only has the brother in question committed petty theft, but he's also managed to breach the Geneva Convention. Rather than federal trademark registration, the emblem of the Red Cross is protected by international humanitarian law, ratified in the US in 1905.

Section 706, Title 18, U.S. Criminal Code, reads as follows:

"Whoever wears or displays the sign of the Red Cross or any insignia colored in imitation thereof for the fraudulent purpose of inducing the belief that he is a member of or an agent for the American National Red Cross; or

"Whoever, whether a corporation, association or person, other than the American National Red Cross and its duly authorized employees and agents and the sanitary and hospital authorities of the armed forces of the United States, uses the emblem of the Greek red cross on a white ground, or any sign or insignia made or colored in imitation thereof or the words "Red Cross" or "Geneva Cross" or any combination of these words--

"Shall be fined...or imprisoned..."

Fines at the moment stand at US$250 for individuals, with terms of imprisonment of not more than 6 months. Some exceptions exist for pre-1905 users of the emblem.

Your brother and friends are fundamentally undermining the humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross. The emblem exists to stop wounded soldiers and humanitarian workers being needlessly slayed. The Greek red cross represents much more than a single organization. It indicates to members of any devastated community that much needed help has arrived. Misusing the emblem irreversibly dilutes its meaning.

Right along those lines comes a story from the early 1900's. Yes, this is a true one.

A man walks into a cigar store and points to a five cent cigar. He's dressed nicely, acts normally, and the clerk hands him the cigar. The man gives the clerk a five dollar gold coin, and the clerk gives the man $4.95 in change.

Except for one thing... that five dollar gold coin is actually a V-nickel (also known as a Liberty Head nickel that was gold-plated. The gent goes around and drops a lot of the gold-plated nickels until he's caught.

The man goes to trial, and is found not guilty.

How, you ask? The gent turns out to be a deaf mute. Some racketeers gave him the coins, and the gent went around buying nickel cigars. The racketeers got most of the take. The gent was found not guilty because he never spoke, just pointed to the nickel cigar. The clerks did not look closely at the coins. The gent was under no obligation, according to the legal folks, to tell the clerks they made a mistake.

OK, obviously the gent knew what he was doing. But he got away with it. Does that make it right? Certainly not, and I think that that verdict would be very different if it was tried in modern courthouses. Moral and legal may not be the same thing, but it certainly takes away from someone else, even if you can't see it directly. That $700 that your brother made while sitting in front of a grocery store could have kept a family in a shelter, or fed a bunch of starving folks.

By the by, you can sometimes find gold-plated V-nickels at coin shows.

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