The Visit

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Justice, Morality, and Money Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Justice, Morality, and Money Theme Icon
Irony and Artifice Theme Icon
Love and Prostitution Theme Icon
Humanism and Dehumanization Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Visit, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice, Morality, and Money Theme Icon

Claire’s quest to win justice for Ill’s betrayal propels the plot of The Visit, and she ultimately succeeds in taking Ill’s life and reputation as punishment for his wrongs. In many stories that depict a person avenging past wrongs, the ultimate verdict is seen to vindicate justice, truth, and morality. The Visit, however, uses Claire’s quest for justice—and the vapid and shifting definitions of justice to which the townspeople subscribe—to call into question whether “justice” is a concept with any meaning at all.

From the very beginning, justice means something different to each of the central characters in the play. To Claire, justice is the same as vengeance—it is her desire for disproportionate retribution against someone who wronged her forty-five years ago. This “justice” is not rooted in any external set of rules or guidelines, like religion or the law—rather, it is something to which Claire, who is driven by self-interest, feels personally entitled. Furthermore, Claire treats justice as a commodity to be bought or sold. When she offers the town a billion dollars in exchange for Ill’s death, the Mayor protests that “justice can’t be bought,” but Claire responds that “Everything can be bought.” Thus, as Claire herself admits, it’s wealth that allows her to seek the precise “justice” she desires by essentially bribing the entire town to provide it.

For Ill, however, justice requires accountability to one’s own actions. As the town turns against him, Ill retreats inward and, in time, accepts his inevitable death as punishment for his betrayal of Claire. “I turned Clara into what she is,” he says, “and myself into what I am, a grimy, petty shopkeeper.” With no recourse (since all of Güllen’s institutions have decided to kill him), Ill stops trying to justify his actions, and he simply acknowledges the pain he caused years ago. In the end, this sets him apart from his fellow Gülleners, who refuse to ever acknowledge their own moral failings. It also sets him apart from Claire, whose development as a character is static and stunted; she remains vengeful from beginning to end. Ill, meanwhile, undergoes a transformation from “a grimy, petty shopkeeper” into someone willing to hold himself and others to abstract ideals; when the Mayor suggests that Ill commit suicide and save the town the trouble of having to kill him, he refuses. The town, too, he argues, must assume responsibility for accepting Claire’s dubious bargain.

For the townspeople, “justice” is an empty word—one that carries connotations of “doing the right thing,” but is actually unconnected to any real principles and is therefore easily twisted to accommodate greed and self-interest. Upon hearing Claire’s offer, the people of Güllen proudly and defiantly refuse. “[W]e are still in Europe,” the Mayor reminds Claire. “We’re not savages yet. In the name of the town of Güllen, I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.” Despite the mayor’s stated commitment to principle, this speech is quickly revealed to be empty: it is not long before the people of Güllen begin living above their means, implicitly acknowledging their intent to comply with Claire’s bargain. At first, even with their most flagrant extravagances on full view, the townsfolk deny that their values have changed or that they intend to satisfy Claire’s demands. However, once they can no longer deny their intentions, they change their concept of justice in order to fit their actions, rather than holding their actions accountable to their concept of justice.

This is clearest in the contrast between the Mayor’s first speech refusing Claire’s offer and the Teacher’s speech at the trial in the third act. The Teacher’s speech mirrors the Mayor’s in its emphasis of principles (“The issue here is not money. […] It is not prosperity, a comfortable way of life, luxury; the issue is whether we want to make justice a reality, and not only justice but all the ideals…that constitute the true value of our Western world.”). However, while the Mayor had invoked these same principles to refuse Claire’s offer, the Teacher is invoking them to justify accepting it. In this context, “justice” becomes essentially meaningless—an empty commodity disguised as morality. Justice, Dürrenmatt suggests, can be bought and principles and ideals are only relevant insofar as they are convenient.

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Justice, Morality, and Money ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice, Morality, and Money appears in each Act of The Visit. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice, Morality, and Money Quotes in The Visit

Below you will find the important quotes in The Visit related to the theme of Justice, Morality, and Money.
Act 1 Quotes

Two gangsters from Manhattan, sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Released at my request to carry my sedan chair. One million dollars per petition is what it cost me. The sedan chair comes from the Louvre, a gift from the French president. A nice gentleman. Looks just like he does in the papers. Carry me into town, Roby and Toby.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker), Roby and Toby
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, from the beginning of the play, explains the origin of two of Claire’s servants, Roby and Toby, who were convicted criminals before Claire bought their way out of a death sentence. This is the first inkling in The Visit of Claire’s penchant for buying justice. To most people, a justice system with any integrity would not allow a billionaire to buy two convicts out of serving their sentence, but here Claire flippantly states that she has done just that. This not only foreshadows her buying “justice” in Güllen by paying for the murder of Alfred Ill, but it also more fundamentally casts doubt on the notion of justice overall by showing that Claire’s money alone gives her extraordinary power over the American judicial system (as well as access to the French president). This passage also begins to suggest the way that Claire dehumanizes those around her. Roby and Toby are not her servants’ real names—she has renamed them to amuse herself, and their role is to carry around her sedan chair as though she were a queen.

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You have remained unforgettable. Truly. Your academic achievements are still held up as an example by our educators, especially the interest you showed in the most important subject, botany and zoology, thus expressing your sympathy with every living being, indeed with all creatures in need of protection. Even then, your love of justice and your charitable nature were widely admired.

Related Characters: Mayor (speaker), Claire Zachanassian
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is part of the Mayor’s speech to Claire and the townspeople upon Claire’s arrival in Güllen. As the speech is meant to flatter Claire into giving money, the Mayor deliberately distorts the details of Claire’s undistinguished youth in order to make her seem different than she was. This section of the speech has thematic resonance with many events to come. In The Visit, education and love of learning are associated with humanism (which means valuing the human capacity for mutual understanding and selflessness), but the Mayor previously conceded that Claire was never a good student. Thus, the Mayor is painting Claire as a humanist, even though he knows she isn’t one, which shows how the town’s humanist principles can be easily distorted for personal gain and convenience. Furthermore, the Mayor’s celebration of Claire’s sense of justice and compassion for living creatures will soon be seen for the monstrous irony that it is, since Claire is actually on a quest to pervert justice and harm somebody she loved.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I will tell you the condition. I will give you a billion, and with that billion I will buy myself justice.

MAYOR: What exactly do you mean by that, Madam?

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I mean what I said.

MAYOR: But justice can’t be bought!

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: Everything can be bought.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker), Mayor (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

This conversation comes after the dramatic moment in which Claire reveals that she will give a billion dollars to Güllen, but only on one condition. Though she has not yet revealed the condition, in this passage she clearly states her motivations for the bargain: she is buying justice. In humanist societies, justice is a sacred principle that ensures fairness and accountability. Justice is supposed to be disinterested—that is to say, it is supposed to treat everyone equally, regardless of their circumstances—and it is supposed to be separated from personal desires, biases, and wealth. For a democracy, justice is considered a foundational principle, and to openly claim to be buying justice is the political equivalent of blasphemy; Claire, here, is appearing to question the very order of society. The Mayor is as appalled by this as one might expect a good humanist to be, and Claire’s cool confidence that she will prevail in defying a sacred principle of democracy is unnerving. For the remainder of the play, as the townspeople slowly give in to Claire’s demands, these words resonate more and more loudly. By the end, it’s clear that Claire is right—everything can be bought, even a person’s most deeply-held values.

Correct. Chief Justice Hofer. Forty-five years ago I was Chief Justice of Güllen and then moved on to the Court of Appeal in Kaffigen, until twenty-five years ago Mrs. Zachanassian offered me the opportunity to enter her service as her butler. I accepted. A peculiar career for a man of learning, perhaps, but the salary was so fantastic—

Related Characters: Butler (speaker), Claire Zachanassian
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

While Claire is explaining to the townspeople that her donation will come on one condition, she takes a detour to explain that she will be buying herself justice, and that justice—despite being a principle considered to be above money—can, in fact, be bought. Part of her proof is the story of her butler, who was once the Chief Justice of Güllen. Just as Claire bought Roby and Toby out of their death sentences in New York, Claire bought justice with her butler—she literally bought a respected judge out of the court system and into being a personal servant (a job considered much less prestigious) by paying him a large sum of money. This further shows Claire’s ability to turn people into commodities by offering them an amount of money they cannot refuse, even if it compromises their integrity, values, or passions. Thus, this passage suggests that people’s principles are more malleable than they might like to think, particularly when greed and personal interest are involved, and even when the person being tempted is a person who represents one of the highest institutions of humanist society, the court of law.

BUTLER: What happened to you?

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I became a prostitute.

BUTLER: Why?

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: The court’s verdict turned me into one.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker), Butler (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Claire and her butler tell the story of how Alfred Ill betrayed Claire by bribing witnesses to falsely testify that Ill was not the father of her child. The courts ruled against Claire, and so she was forced to turn to prostitution to support herself—a miscarriage of justice, in other words, forced Claire to become a prostitute. This passage shows how corruption breeds more corruption. Ill’s immoral and cynical manipulation of the courts forced Claire to make a living in a profession considered to be immoral. Thus “justice,” to Claire, became an empty principle—one that could be wielded for personal gain. This experience of being betrayed by justice made Claire cynical, and for that reason she believes that buying revenge on Ill is equivalent to getting justice for the wrongs he committed against her.

Life has gone on, but I have forgotten nothing, Ill. Neither the woods of Konradsweil nor Petersen’s barn, neither Widow Boll’s bedroom nor your treachery. Now we have grown old, the two of us, you down at the heels and me cut to pieces by surgeons’ knives, and now I want us both to settle accounts: you chose your life and forced me into mine. You wanted time to be suspended, just a moment ago, in the woods of our youth, so full of impermanence. Now I have suspended it, and now I want justice, justice for a billion.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker), Alfred Ill
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Claire explains to the town that, in exchange for her donation, the townspeople must kill Alfred Ill. Here, she publicly addresses Ill himself, recalling the happiness and love of their youth and the betrayal that shattered their relationship. A noteworthy portion of this speech is Claire’s statement that Ill chose his life, thereby forcing Claire into a life she hadn’t wanted. Claire was vulnerable in the moment in which Ill betrayed her: she was pregnant, she had no money, and she lacked professional and social options because she was a woman. Ill, though, had the option to marry someone wealthy to improve his own life, and he did that rather than taking responsibility for the woman he loved and the child he fathered. Ill, in other words, made a selfish choice, and Claire had to grapple with the tremendous fallout of that choice. Furthermore, Ill’s manipulation of the justice system taught Claire that justice is a tool to be wielded for personal gain. As a result, Claire believes that getting justice for Ill’s betrayal means subjecting Ill to the kind of situation she endured: one in which he has no power, and must accept her choice to ruin his life.

Mrs. Zachanassian, we are still in Europe; we’re not savages yet. In the name of the town of Güllen I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.

Related Characters: Mayor (speaker), Claire Zachanassian
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Claire has laid out the terms of her donation to the town, the Mayor reacts with outrage. Citing their values, he says that the town cannot kill Alfred Ill in order to obtain a much-needed financial contribution, and he seems offended that Claire would even suggest it. This, of course, turns out to be hollow idealism, as all the townspeople—including the Mayor—eventually betray their principles and give in to Claire’s demands. In light of this reversal, this quote takes on a deep cynicism—even cherished principles, Dürrenmatt suggests, are up for negotiation, particularly when money is on the table. This quote takes on further significance in light of the historical context of the play. First staged in 1956, The Visit comes almost exactly a decade after Europe ripped itself apart in the Second World War. Thus, Dürrenmatt undoubtedly meant the Mayor’s reference to Europeans not being “savages” and not wanting blood on their hands ironically. European principles, in light of recent history, would certainly not preclude the townspeople from killing one of their own for personal gain.

Act 2 Quotes

ILL: You’ve got new shoes. New yellow shoes.

SECOND MAN: So?

ILL: You, too, Hofbauer. You, too, are wearing new shoes. (He looks at the women, walks over to them slowly, horrified.) You too. New yellow shoes. New yellow shoes.

Related Characters: Alfred Ill (speaker), First–Fourth Men
Related Symbols: Yellow Shoes
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ill is slowly realizing that all of the Gülleners are living above their means, which is visually apparent in the expensive yellow shoes they are suddenly wearing. Claire has offered the town a billion dollars in exchange for Ill’s life (and half of that will be divided among the individual townspeople), so Ill knows that the more debt the townspeople take on by buying luxuries, the more likely they will be to give in to Claire’s offer in order to relieve themselves of their debt. Thus, the yellow shoes are a way for the audience (and for Ill) to visualize the shift in the public’s intentions. At the beginning of the play, the townspeople wore drab clothes and insisted that they would never kill Ill for money, but as more and more people put on yellow shoes (and take on the debt those shoes imply), it becomes clear that the town’s good intentions have changed.

ILL: The customers I’ve had this morning. Usually there’s no one for the longest time, and now, for the past few days, they’re coming in droves.

FIRST MAN: It’s because we stand by you. We stick by our Ill. Firm as a rock.

Related Characters: Alfred Ill (speaker), First–Fourth Men (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Ill is uneasily remarking that business is booming in his store. Since Güllen is in a prolonged economic depression that has not yet lifted, the townspeople’s new spending habits are alarming to Ill—the more debt they take on, the more likely they will be to accept Claire’s offer to kill him for money. Here, Ill obliquely raises this concern with a customer who is spending more money than normal, but this customer claims to still have the same humanist principles of loyalty and compassion as always. Despite the fact that this customer’s extra spending is directly connected to his immanent betrayal of Ill, the customer frames his immoral activity in humanist terms. He tells Ill that he’s not spending more money because he is prioritizing his self interest and greed over protecting a beloved community member, but rather that he is doing so because he is so loyal to that community member. This is another example of how humanist principles are empty and can be contorted to support immoral activity.

MAYOR: You forget that you’re in Güllen. A town with a humanist tradition. Goethe slept here. Brahms composed a quartet. These values impose an obligation.

A man enters, left, with a typewriter.

MAN: The new typewriter, Your Honor. A Remington.

Related Characters: Mayor (speaker), Alfred Ill
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Ill has gone to the Mayor to express his concern that the town is going to betray him. As the Mayor is telling Ill that his concerns are misplaced and that Gülleners would never betray him because of their obligation to their humanist principles, a man brings the mayor a new, expensive typewriter. Since the townspeople taking on unpayable debts is the principal signal to Ill that they intend to betray him for money, this scene appears to catch the Mayor in a lie. City Hall is making extravagant purchases, despite the Mayor’s insistence that everyone is still adhering to their principles. This scene comes in a sequence of public officials—such as the policeman, the Mayor, and the pastor—seeming dismissive but also evasive of Ill’s concerns. Each of them uses humanism as an alibi for their true intentions, though not one of Güllen’s civic leaders truly plans to refuse personal gain in order to stand up for Ill. This shows, once again, that humanist principles are not strong enough to resist greed and selfishness, not even among those people whose very social role is to enforce and uphold humanist values.

Act 3 Quotes

Human kindness, gentlemen, is made for the purses of millionaires. With financial power like mine, you can afford yourself a new world order. The world made a whore of me, now I’ll make a whorehouse of the world. Pay up or get off the dance floor. You want to join the dance? Only paying customers merit respect. And believe me, I’ll pay. Güllen for a murder, boom times for a corpse.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Claire has just revealed to the townspeople that she owns all the industry in Güllen and she has caused the town’s economic downturn in order to create the conditions under which the townspeople would murder Ill. The teacher has just urged Claire to be kind and abandon her desire for revenge, but Claire responds that kindness—a humanist value—is actually based on money and self interest. This is yet another example of Dürrenmatt sowing doubt about the value of humanism in the face of greed. In addition, Claire states in this passage a primary motivation for her bargain with Güllen: that she wants to corrupt the town just as she feels it corrupted her. In other words, Claire explicitly wants to reveal the hypocrisy at the center of the town’s professed humanist values and force them to acknowledge that they live by self-interest.

If he tries to expose Clara by claiming she put a price on his head or something like that, when actually it was just an expression of unspeakable suffering, we’ll just have to take action.

Related Characters: First–Fourth Men (speaker), Claire Zachanassian
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

With journalists sniffing around Güllen, the townspeople (who have now decided to kill Ill) are worried that the press will get wind of their cruel bargain. The language they use to try to keep everyone quiet in front of the press is revealing of their values. Instead of owning up to the fact that they plan to kill a community member for money—something that they had previously found unthinkably immoral—they have now twisted their idea of justice to fit their new plan. Here, a townsperson rejects the idea that Claire has put a price on Ill’s head (which she explicitly has), instead justifying her offer by framing it as a fair and understandable reaction to the suffering that Ill caused her. Thus, the humanist values of empathy and justice that once led the townspeople to reject Claire’s offer are now being used to support killing Ill. It seems, then, that humanist values have allowed the townspeople to deceive themselves about their own morality. Unlike Claire, they do not own up to their selfishness—they prefer to think of themselves as upholding their principles, even as they indulge their worst impulses.

The temptation is too great and our poverty is too wretched. But I know something else. I too will take part in it. I can feel myself slowly turning into a murderer. My faith in humanity is powerless. And because I know this, I have turned into a drunk. I am scared, Ill, just as you have been scared. I still know that some day an old lady will visit us too, and that then what is happening to you now will happen to us, but soon, maybe in a few hours, I will no longer know it.

Related Characters: Teacher (speaker), Claire Zachanassian, Alfred Ill
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Teacher (who has been the play’s most steadfast defender of sparing Ill’s life and keeping to humanist values) has finally relented to the fact that he will participate in murdering Ill. This passage is chilling because the Teacher knows that what he’s doing is wrong, but he also knows that he and the rest of the town cannot resist doing it. It shakes his faith in humanity, as he says, and terrifies him, because it shows him that his humanist worldview is wrong—the world is much more selfish and dark than he has ever admitted. This is the most powerful evidence so far that humanist values are empty and powerless.

Furthermore, the Teacher implies that accepting Claire’s bargain will irrevocably corrupt the town. Just as Ill’s manipulation of the justice system corrupted Claire and precipitated the circumstances of the play, the Teacher says that one day “some old lady will visit us too,” by which he means that the town will pay for its betrayal of Ill. However, by the time that happens the Teacher will have killed Ill and therefore become someone different—someone corrupted—who can no longer see the inevitability of retribution. This is one of the darkest passages in the play, because it suggests that violence, greed, and corruption are not only inevitable, but they also destroy whomever they touch. The implication, of course, is that all of humanity will inevitably become depraved.

Your Honor! I’ve been through hell. I saw you all going into debt, and with every sign of prosperity I felt death creeping closer. If you had spared me that anguish, that horrible fear, it would have all been different, we could speak on different terms, I would take the rifle. For all of your sake. But then I shut myself in, conquered my fear. Alone. It was hard; now it’s done. There is no turning back. Now you must be my judges. I will submit to your decision, whatever it turns out to be. For me it will be justice; I don’t know what it will be for you. May God help you live with your judgment. You can kill me, I won’t complain, I won’t protest, I won’t defend myself, but your action is yours, and I can’t relieve you of it.

Related Characters: Alfred Ill (speaker), Mayor
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is Ill’s speech in response to the Mayor’s request that Ill kill himself so that the townspeople don’t have to have Ill’s murder on their conscience. As Ill subtly points out, the request is absurd—pressuring Ill to kill himself so that the townspeople can profit is not, at this point, morally different from killing him. Ill notes that if the townspeople hadn’t already decided to kill him (and then lied to him about it while he was left alone to fear for his life), then he might be able to have an honest and compassionate conversation with the town about whether it would make moral sense for him to sacrifice himself for everyone’s sake. However, Ill is now being given a false choice, since if he chooses not to kill himself, he will still be killed by the town. Ill has taken responsibility for his actions and he’s ready to accept the consequences, but he insists that the town do the same—he won’t allow the townspeople to rest easily believing that their selfishness is okay since it was Ill himself who chose to die. This is a powerful moral stand from Ill. However, the Teacher’s speech about how his own corruption is inevitable makes the audience wonder to what end Ill is standing up for principles, since those principles have proved, time and time again, to be empty.

ILL: The town’s holding a meeting this evening. They’ll sentence me to death and one of them will kill me. I don’t know who he will be or where it will happen, I only know that I’m ending a meaningless life.

CLAIRE ZACHANASSIAN: I loved you. You betrayed me. But the dream of life, of love, of trust—this dream that was a reality once—I haven’t forgotten that. I want to rebuild it with my billions, I will change the past, by destroying you.

Related Characters: Claire Zachanassian (speaker), Alfred Ill (speaker)
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Claire and Ill have met in the forest for the last time. Ill has accepted his fate, and his statement that his life was meaningless seems to indicate his resignation to the fact that the higher principles for which he thought he had lived were false. The happiest time in Ill’s life was when he was in love with Claire, but he himself destroyed that and he has, unknowingly, lived with the consequences. His selfishness has meant that the life he lived was empty of love and morally corrupt, and now its end seems to lack gravitas or completeness. Claire, however, believes that, despite everything that has happened, she can reclaim their past by getting vengeance. Claire’s statement here implies that by buying justice and killing Ill she can reverse all of the corruption that has ruined their lives. This is equivalent to fighting fire with fire, but Ill doesn’t protest. In a way, it gives his death some meaning to think it might bring about a return to a better time, even if that is unlikely.

MAYOR: The Claire Zachanassian Endowment has been accepted. Unanimously. Not for the sake of the money—

THE COMMUNITY: Not for the sake of the money—

MAYOR: But for the sake of justice—

THE COMMUNITY: But for the sake of justice—

MAYOR: And to allay our conscience.

THE COMMUNITY: And to allay our conscience.

MAYOR: For we cannot live if we sanction a crime in our midst—

THE COMMUNITY: For we cannot live if we sanction a crime in our midst—

Related Characters: Mayor (speaker), Claire Zachanassian, Alfred Ill
Page Number: 104-105
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the moment in which the town officially commits to killing Ill in exchange for Claire’s donation. Significantly, the language with which they accept the deal is similar to the language they had once used to protest it: previously, they said they believed in justice over money and that they could not permit Ill to be killed because they did not want blood on their hands. Here, they have reversed themselves. Instead of believing it would be unjust to kill Ill, they seem now to have made themselves believe that it would be unjust not to kill him, since he deserves to be punished for his betrayal of Claire. Obviously, death is a disproportionate punishment for Ill’s crime, and because of this, it’s clear that the townspeople have simply used their humanist principles as a justification for their own selfishness and violence. The emptiness of these principles is underscored by the eerie repetition of the Mayor’s words by the whole community. Nobody is shown to have personal integrity; everyone goes along with an unjust course of action, seeming to accept what the Mayor says without question. The particular irony here, of course, is that the opposite of what the Mayor and the town are saying is true: they have accepted Claire’s offer for money alone (in defiance of justice) and their very acceptance of the offer is, implicitly, sanctioning a horrific crime in their midst.