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The literal meaning of the word crime refers to an act that is unlawful; however there can then be differing interpretations of the word "unlawful", depending on whether the act is considered from a legal, societal, or moral viewpoint.

Legal crimes are those which explicitly have written laws against--theft for example. However there are such charges that can be brought against an individual titled "Crimes against humanity" which also have laws that stipulate the extent to which that phrase may be used. These crimes are those that morally contradict the essence of human right to life on a large scale: genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture. The category of Hostis humani generis began with piracy and has continued to include crimes against all civilized persons.

From a moral standpoint, a crime can be considered anything that extravagantly violates someone's personal, or spirital beliefs; such victims of those crimes may feel that they have been "wronged", when in fact no legal precedent may exist. In some cases these crimes fall into legal gray areas that cannot be explicitly defined, because of the long lasting impact it may have on societal rules and values.

War crimes are those charges brought against one who commits heinous acts during a time of conflict. Many of the Nazi elite were accused of war crimes during the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg) and the subsequent Nuremberg Military Tribunals; a few committed suicide in order to escape their fates. New international venues such as the International Criminal Court and specific tribunals for areas such as Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia are developing.

Effects of crime

Crime as a broad category can sometimes be divided into two types: "white-collar" crimes, and "blue-collar" crimes. White-collar crimes are those that typically involve non-violent means and result in unlawful profit for the individual. Back dating of stock options, embezzlement, insider trading, and business fraud fall into this category.

Blue-collar crimes are usually violent in nature: murder, rape, and assault, for instance.

These two types of crimes have serious impacts upon the society in which they occur. One might be the inclination of individuals to perpetrate criminal acts: as more crime occurs, provided the ability of law enforcement remains static to combat the crime, there may be an idea that perhaps the individual may "get away with it".

Another is that citizens of the towns or cities that have high or escalating crime rates may choose to move out for their own safety. The result of this is that land value decreases, businesses close, and there is an economic withdrawal. The immediate area suffers a negative slide in quality-of-life values, and may become dilapidated. This neglegence allows for more crime to occur, and may be a difficult problem to remedy should combative or pre-emptive steps not be taken.

Organized Crime

When groups of people intentionlly perpetrate many different types of crimes for collective gain, it may be labeled as "organized". Mafias and gangs are common examples of groups that perpetrate organized crime. During the prohibition era in the United States, these groups of people participated in the act of bootlegging, or producing illegal alcohol for consumption and distribution. In fighting this problem, violence erupted between the organized groups of gangsters and law enforcement. Ultimately many of these gangs had a network of people that worked in various industries and positions in order to facilitate the production and distrubtion of bootlegged liquor.

A black market arose from the acts of criminals like Al Capone, who ran one of the notorious crime families during the 1920s.


Despite laws being enacted to provide punishments for given crimes, the determination of "what a crime is" can ultimately depend on the actions of individual. Part of maintaining the element of social fiber is the enforcement of those laws, however there are those that believe despite whatever the legal statutes are, some activies are "not crimes." These individuals may perpetrate crimes based on some logical fallacy or rationalization of their actions. Those viewpoints can be, but are not limited to, arguments such as "I'm not hurting anybody", or "What I'm doing is very minor; there's no reason to go after me", or "Everybody's doing it."

Victimless crimes

Some activities, such as drug use, prostitution, and sodomy, are punished as crimes often do not have a victim. Some have advocated the partial or total decriminalization of these crimes, but others maintain that these activities need to be prohibited to preserve morality.

These particular crimes have real consequences that may not be immediate. For example, by the sharing of introveinous needles for drug use, disease can spread within a community. This was one factor that caused AIDS to spread quickly in parts of the world. Because certain diseases can have a long incubation period, those drug users may have unknowingly spread them to acquaintances or loved ones. Prostitution can also have the same side effect of distributing diseases and viruses within the community. Unfortunately even attempted care for society may contribute to the distribution of disease: there was a period of time before AIDS became officially recognized as an epidemic when the blood banks did not test their blood samples and infected many people unknowingly. Thus for the benefit and overall health of the community, these acts may be considered "crimes", even though the impact may solely be on ones' self.

Crime in fiction

Crime has been an important element in many literary, cinematic, theatrical, and artistic works. A genre of literature, mystery, specializes in solving criminal cases. Some of them, such as Sherlock Holmes novels and works by Agatha Christie, are considered to be classic in the genre. See catalog of prominent mystery writers .

Films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the genre film noir often feature crime as a significant element in the plot. Hollywood films dealing with organized crime in America which have won the Academy Award for Best Picture include The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and The Departed (2006).