So, a person I know did something bad.
"Really bad," the person told me. "I walked up to the ATM machine to get some cash, and the screen said, 'Do you want another transaction?' And I hit 'yes.'"
"No!" I said. "You didn't."
"I did. And then? I hit Fast Cash? And I got $100. And the person's card."
The perpetrator felt very, very bad afterward and was not sure what to do. The owner of the ATM card was nowhere to be seen. A range of options were considered: turning in the card and cash to the bank (too risky), cutting up the card and giving the money to charity (too lame), or considering it a lucky day and moving on (too unscrupulous).
"This doesn't excuse anything... I know it was bad... but I do feel a little less bad because the balance on the account was more than $20,000. I mean, I didn't take food off of anyone's table or anything."
Rationalizations aside, the thief said a feeling of nausea followed the act. I know that feeling -- it's a pit in your gut that tells you you just did something really crappy to somebody, and you have absolutely no excuse for it.
I thought about times I had experienced that feeling myself. The first thing that came to mind was an incident in fourth grade, during an indoor recess in the lunchroom. We had a supervisor named Ms. Dustin, a woman in her thirties with a large posterior, an extremely slow gait and not a shred of the authoritarian quality necessary to make us take her seriously.
I had gone to get a sponge out of a bucket on the stage of the "all-purpose room." (Remember all-purpose rooms?) I had the sponge in my hand, and saw Ms. Dustin's puffy jacket right next to me, on the floor of the stage. I slowly squeezed the sponge, with its dirty all-purpose water, over Ms. Dustin's jacket. I did it because a) I could, b) my friends were watching and thought it was highly entertaining and c) I am a terrible person.
An upset and incredulous Ms. Dustin, who had caught me in the act, brought me to the principal. With wide eyes and the pained look of an innocent accused, I swore up and down that it had been an accident. I got off the hook (apparently Ms. Dustin didn't have much clout with the principal, either), but I knew it was awful, and began the same internal self-justifications that everyone else uses to move on with their lives after doing something crummy. To this day, just thinking about the story conjures the same rush of guilty, excited nausea that comes from doing something bad and getting away with it.
The person who confessed the theft to me noted that there are cameras on ATM machines. "But, they couldn't catch me just from that, right? I mean, I wasn't stupid enough to use my own card right afterward."
I am the wrong person to turn to for any kind of comfort or reassurance in this sort of situation. Though not necessarily super-moral (as evidenced above), I am extremely paranoid. I have never smoked a cigarette or used an illegal drug, half out of a certainty that the minute I did so, a SWAT team -- together with my parents -- would immediately converge upon the scene.
"I... I don't know," I stammered. "I mean, yeah, they probably won't go after you." I was sure that just uttering the prediction had already tilted the odds toward formal charges.
A few days later, I still couldn't get the conversation out of my head. It had the potential to become a minor curse (as in the Haruki Murakami story "The Second Bakery Attack,"), and I felt that by just knowing about it and not doing anything, I was guilty too. I pushed a solution: Google the victim, find the address, and send the money back, with the card cut in half. It worked, I think... here's hoping.