So I was thinking about the Death Note manga/anime a few days ago when I suddenly realized that as a criminology major who almost has his degree, I am in a very good position to speculate how successful Kira would be if he appeared in real life! Do you wanna know? Shut up! I’m telling you anyway!
OK first of all lets get Kira’s mission out of the way. As I understand it Light Yagami’s plan from the start was to use the Death Note to kill as many criminals as he could, as widespread as possible, as often as possible. He would give priority to the highest profile evil doers – probably war lords and brutal dictators on downwards. However his ultimate goal was to strike so much fear into the heart of the world’s criminal population that eventually everyone would behave themselves and Light Yagami could reign supreme in his own personal utopia. It is clear from both the manga and the anime that he had no intention of compromising or settling for just “some” criminals or even “most” criminals. He wanted to become in his own words “god of a new world” completely free of crime.
Now Light Yagami’s master plan rests on two major assumptions. First of all he assumes deterrence is an effective means of crime control. He believes that the Death Note would be enough to scare criminals away from crime. Now he may not necessarily be wrong but the thing is deterrence only works in a very specific set of circumstances. Lets start with those in his favor. First is severity, meaning the punishment has to be severe enough to discourage the crime. In this Kira’s punishment for crime in general is death by heart attack and as they say death is the ultimate terror. So no one can argue that his method isn’t sufficiently harsh.
Second is knowledge. More specifically criminals or potential criminals will not be deterred unless they know about what could happen to them. In the story Kira’s killings swept the nations by storm and became a constant source of world news, so much so that he started using the media as an outlet for some of his demands. So unless the criminals recently arrived from Mars, it is pretty clear that Light has “knowledge” going for him. But unfortunately for him that is where his advantage would end.
The next condition is certainty – how much of a sure thing is it that a criminal will be punished? No matter how intelligent Light is, or how many networks he has access to, he is only one person with at times 1 to 3 assistants if we go by the original story. Considering that the world criminal population could number in the hundreds of millions at least and that there is a constant influx of new crimes being committed across the planet, what are the odds that YOUR crime will be noticed and punished by this one small gang of 4 working out of Japan within your natural life time? You’d probably have a better chance at finding a winning lottery ticket on a school playground.
The final condition required for effective deterrence is celerity or swiftness. In other words the punishment must happen as quickly as possible after the crime is committed. If you have to wait 10 to 20 years after your crime hit the local news for Kira to give you a heart attack, whose gonna remember you? Which news media would bother to even report your death? You’d be lucky if you made a blurb on page eleven of the morning paper. The advantage of celerity is that your misdeed is still in the public consciousness when you get your comeuppance. Again the problem with this is numbers. There is so much news happening across the world today, that even if Kira spent all of his time killing criminals, the odds that he would get to YOU in time are no better if not WORSE than on whether he’d catch you at all. So with all of that said Kira’s method of deterrence leaves a lot to be desired.
The second assumption of Light Yagami’s ultimate plan for godhood is that criminals behave according to Classical Theory – that is criminals think rationally when they break the law and always weigh the costs and benefits beforehand. So what Light hopes is that potential criminals will think about committing a crime, remember that Kira is out there killing criminals, and so decide not to act. However for the most part this is simply not true. Many criminals act out of sheer economic desperation, in which they have little left to lose anyway. Those who are most predatory can become addicted to their crimes in which they are no longer thinking in terms of “can I get a way with this,” but rather “can I do this one more time before he kills me?” Other criminals behave the way they do because they are unstable either because of some psychosis or because of drugs. Most of the higher profile crimes like murder are acts of passion in which the perpetrator is so stressed out that they finally snap and are not thinking about or have officially stopped caring about the consequences. Almost all of these crimes come from the human condition and will not go away just because the lives of the perpetrators are being taken.
One more issue to consider is how much knowledge Light Yagami has available to him versus the amount of crime that’s actually being perpetrated on the planet. Even among the most meticulous countries who do their best to record and file the crimes that occur within their borders, they all still rely on people reporting it to the authorities. With that in mind there is always going to be a very large chunk of crimes that happen off the grid, and an even larger percentage of criminals that are never going to be caught. Again no matter how smart Light Yagami is, if there is no data on the crime or the suspect he will not be able to punish the offender, and some scholars estimate that 40 to 60% of crimes in the United States alone go undocumented. Granted a large amount of that high percent is misdemeanors and petty crimes but we know from the story that Kira wants ALL misbehavior to stop, not just high profile cases.
So finally after all is said and done would Kira’s plan to kill the world’s criminals and create a civilized utopia work out in real life? No. No it wouldn’t.
Indeed not only would Kira’s method not work in real life, it could even make things worse. There is a phenomenon called the brutalization effect, where the topic of death and killing being talked about and always showing up on the news can actually put would be assailants and killers in an assaulting and killing mood. So instead of reducing the violent criminal population, Kira could actually add to it.