The riots that have engulfed England started soon after the police shot dead a man named Mark Duggan who was riding in the back of a taxi. The nature of this man is still a matter of doubt; I have my suspicions, but they are not proof. At the very least, the photograph of him taken posing as a gangster suggests he inhabited a culture in which criminality is much admired and possibly envied.
What friends and relatives said about him was unintentionally revealing about their mental world and social milieu. His girlfriend, for example, said: “I believe if he had a firearm and if he saw the police, he would run rather than shoot.” How many women would say of their husbands, “I believe if my husband had a firearm and if he saw the police, he would run rather than shoot?”
His brother said: “He’s not stupid to shoot at the police.” This refers to the initial story, now disproved, that Mr. Duggan had opened fire on the police before they shot him. But “he’s not stupid to shoot at the police” does not suggest a strong ethical reason for not doing so. If you could shoot at the police and get away with it, then it would not be stupid; unfortunately, even now, you’re not likely to get away with it.
A friend, Niki, said: “Yes, he was involved in things, but he was not an aggressive person.” Involved in things? Obviously, some kind of criminal activity is meant; but we’re also supposed to infer that, whatever that activity was, it wasn’t very serious. Criminality is all right so long as you’re not aggressive or violent.
These quotations demonstrate how deeply criminality is embedded in the culture and minds of at least some of the British population: It’s the default setting, as it were. And it has long been my belief that the number of people of whom this is true is uncomfortably large. This is something that our cowardly, lazy and dishonest political and intellectual class has long refused to consider as a possibility, let alone acknowledge as a fact.
Some time ago, I was at a lunch full of liberals. I described what I had seen and heard in the part of Birmingham where, on Tuesday, three people – apparently trying to defend their property – died after being run over by a car. I described the violence, the degradation of the lives of the people there, the thousands I had met and whose life stories I had heard. A charming left-wing individual of the upper class, well-fed and full of abstract sympathy for the poor, leaned forward and said: “You know funny people.” I asked him how many “funny people” he thought there were; perhaps now he has a better idea.
Of course, when dramatic events happen, people look not for the superficial causes, such as the decisions of aggressive, violent young men to commit criminal acts, but for the deeper causes, the ones that must be addressed to make sure such things don’t happen again, at least not soon. And the search for causes often means the search for the guilty men.
In this case, the guilty parties are obvious: my lords, the Queen’s justices. For years, they have been operating a system of leniency toward criminals and criminality that defies the belief of that part of the population, still the majority, that is not criminal. In view of their leniency, the wonder is not that we have scenes such as those that have astonished the world in the past few days but that we don’t have them all the time.
The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, was of precisely the same mindset as Niki, Mark Duggan’s girlfriend; he once delivered himself of the opinion that people who committed “only” house burglary should not be sent to prison, thus turning it into a minor offence.
It’s easy to show that our courts have become extremely lenient. This is especially disastrous in the face of the bureaucratized incompetence of the police, who solve not much more than one in 20 crimes. Impunity is thus the rule; I have calculated that, on average, a British burglar can expect to spend one day in prison per burglary.
The criminal rioters have had long experience and personal knowledge of impunity. They know that shooting a police officer is “stupid,” but they also know that nothing much is likely to happen to them whatever else they do. In the absence of ethical inhibition or prudential reasons, why not riot? It’s entertaining, and entertainment is all that’s left to the radically unemployable such as a section of British youth.
Theodore Dalrymple, a writer and cultural critic, is a retired British prison doctor and psychiatrist.