One of the most important and most nuanced themes of the book is crime, particularly the sale of illegal drugs (and the various crimes related to their sale). Too often, people portray crime in one of two ways. Either crime is a reflection of the basic inequalities in society, or it’s a reflection of the bad decisions that criminals make. Put another way, crime is either something that criminals are driven to do because they’re desperate (suggesting that they’re the victims of broad societal forces like poverty), or it’s something they entirely choose to do (suggesting, oftentimes, that they’re inherently bad people). The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is about a man who commits many crimes. But it doesn’t simplify the facts by portraying Robert in one of the two stereotypical ways. Robert Peace is a victim in some ways, and in other ways he’s responsible for his bad decisions.
At many points in the book, Jeff Hobbs questions the nature of crime, and portrays crime as a natural, rational response to society’s problems. Robert grows up at a time when Newark is one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country. People turn to selling drugs, not because they’re immoral but because they see drugs as one of the only good ways to make money. Robert begins selling drugs in part to support to support his beloved mother, Jackie Peace, the woman who’s worked hard for Robert’s entire life to make sure he’s well-fed and gets a good education. For Robert, as with so many others, selling marijuana is a rational thing to do—and furthermore, it’s the compassionate thing to do, since it allows him to take care of Jackie. Hobbs further de-stigmatizes the drug business by questioning whether selling drugs should really be considered a crime at all. Robert sells marijuana, a drug that’s never shown to cause any direct harm to anyone in the book. Selling marijuana is dangerous, of course, but marijuana itself seems perfectly innocent. In this way, Hobbs advances an arguably “liberal” view of crime, premised on the assumption that drug dealers are generally rational, moral people who just want to survive.
But it’s not that simple. Hobbs clearly has a lot of love and respect for Robert, but he refuses to let his old roommate off the hook entirely. Robert isn’t just the victim of economic need and unfair drug laws: he chooses to take outrageous risks, endangering himself and his friends and family, by committing crimes. Even if Robert is partly motivated by economics, his need for money can’t entirely explain why he sells marijuana. Again and again, Robert’s friends tell him that he should move to a new city, get a well-paying job, and make some money. Robert just laughs off this advice, though on some level, he knows his friends are right. Hobbs suggests that Robert enjoys the risks of selling drugs—he even smuggles weed through an airport, a highly risky act that could easily result in his being arrested by the D.E.A. Robert also seems to take pleasure in breaking rules: he’s proud of being smart enough to get away with his crimes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Robert has always been most comfortable when surrounded by his friends in Newark. It is because he chooses to live in Newark, where economic opportunities are limited, that he makes the further choice to sell drugs to make money. Overall, Robert Peace isn’t just the victim of his own poverty—he’s a smart, mature adult who’s capable of making money in hundreds of different ways, and yet he chooses to make money by breaking the law, endangering his life and the lives of others. This is what makes Robert such a fascinating and frustrating character: he’s so clearly a product of his environment, and therefore not wholly accountable for his actions, and yet also so clearly a product of his own bad choices. Or as one of his classmates puts it, “So fucking smart, but so fucking dumb.”
Crime Quotes in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Jackie and Rob would eat their snacks on the blanket (never on park benches, because stupefied addicts peed themselves on them), and she'd follow him closely over the jungle gym while her eyes searched always for nails or glass or older, rougher children who had no business on a toddler playground, anything that posed a threat to her boy.
As he did so, his confidence grew that not only would this evidence lead to a conviction, but also that a conviction would represent justice in the world. In other words, the defendant was guilty. He did not overlook the many loose ends presented within the story: the single witness who had been inebriated, strung out, severely overtired, and hungover at the time of the murders, and who had identified a suspect, by voice only, whom she had encountered once in her life and never spoken to directly; the very odd time lapse between when the murder was said to have taken place—seven thirty—and when Georgianna's roommate had first called the police two hours later …
But still she saw the anger in him, a gradually thickening shade just behind the sometimes impenetrable veil of his eyes. She knew that any anger could be dangerous, and that this particular variety, seeded so deeply during Skeet's three years in jail awaiting trial—nearly a third of her son's life by the time it was finished—was especially destructive.
Oswaldo's advice was the same that, a few years ago, he himself had refused to hear from others: "Get the fuck out of Newark. Get the fuck away from people who won't get the fuck out of Newark."
And Rob left, rolling his eyes like this scene was just part of a comedy in which he was the focal point of the farcical behavior of those around him. And Oswaldo understood now with a clarity he'd never had before that all of Rob's troubles were self-inflicted—that on Yale graduation day Rob had stood within reach of everything he now didn't have.
She parked and placed one foot in front of the other until she stood in the cold, metallic room that smelled of chemicals, and watched the coroner fold the white sheet down from her son's face. She nodded and said, “Yeah, that's Shawn, that's my son.” From there, she drove straight to work.
And yet they still rendered the predictable media spin of potential squandered, the gift of education sacrificed to the allure of thug life, etc., not only simplistic but offensively so.
At a certain point, the lights disappeared from view beyond the trees and eaves of the neighboring homes, leaving the Burger Boyz to sit down once again in the plastic fold-out chairs and wonder how long it would be before the flames flickered out and the lanterns began their descent. And once that happened, they wondered where each would fall.