If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Understand a little less

John Major's 1993 statement that "We must condemn a little more and understand a little less" horrified me at the time I heard it. How could a politician believe that anything could be solved by less understanding? It seemed a very anti-intellectual and populist thing to say, and he went down in my estimation when he said it. However, things have moved on since then, and now I am not sure that he wasn't right. Take these stories (1) (2) (3):

A teenage girl has been jailed for life for killing a Fife grandmother during a row over £5 and a borrowed cigarette. ... Mrs Gray, 63, died as a result of a head injury after she was knocked to the ground and repeatedly stamped on.

A man convicted over the death of a Matalan store manager in east London was on police bail at the time of the killing. ... Maina, of Canning Town, was bailed after Rizwan Darbar, 17, was stabbed in West Ham during a mobile phone robbery. He was later convicted of the 17-year-old's murder and jailed for life.

DOZENS of college pupils were involved in violent clashes with police yesterday afternoon (November 3), forcing the closure of Orpington High Street. ... The trouble flared at around 5.25pm when more than 40 Orpington College students waited for a bus outside Boots in the high street.... Around 15 of them boarded a route 51 before the driver shut his doors and a patrolling PCSO told the remaining teenagers they would have to wait for the next bus.

So we have a 16-year-old girl who lends and old lady a cigarette and stamps her to death when she goes to collect what she is owed. And we have a man who murders a 17-year-old while robbing him of his phone, and while on bail for that offence acts as look-out in a robbery where the store manager is stabbed in the neck and dies. And he wasn't idle in between the two killings, either:

In the ensuing 15 months Maina was involved in Mr Simpson's killing, was caught with a knife, cannabis, crack cocaine and heroin, before finally being charged in January last year with the 17-year-old's murder.

And we have a group of college students who think it is OK to riot (including hospitalising the PCSO who spoke to them and involving police from three areas, a dog unit and the TSG) because a bus was full and they were told they would have to wait for another one.

In each case, no doubt, there will be the usual pleas in mitigation, citing poor backgrounds, boredom, the newest excuse of "toxic upbringing" and probably racism, too. And the courts will listen to all this, and the sentences will be ameliorated to, if not quite a slap on the wrist, then something that most people will regard as utterly inadequate.

Nicolle Earley (the girl who killed the old lady) was given a life sentence for murder. As one who still doesn't support the death penalty, that seems about right to me. But wait - the 'life sentence' is really 14 years. That means she gets out and is a free woman at the age of 32. In what way that is an adequate punishment for murder escapes me.

Anthony Maina was given a life sentence for the murder of the 17-year-old - again, 14 years [1]. He won't serve a sentence for the manslaughter of the store manager, as he is already on a life sentence.

Several youths were arrested following the disturbances in Orpington. Who knows what chilling punishments await them?

Two things occur to me here: one is that there is now a large section of society that has no respect for human life or the law, and the other is that we don't seem to have any concept of punishing people in line with the seriousness of their offending.

I wonder if we had listened to John Major in 1993, and spent less time trying to understand people who commit crimes like this, and more effort in bringing home to them the consequences of their actions, things might be a little different? I might suggest:
  • If you murder someone, you go to jail for life, and you will never get out, regardless of your home circumstances, mental state or prior history;
  • If you deliberately injure someone, you will be taken out of circulation in very unpleasant circumstances and kept there for a time commensurate with your offence;
  • If you riot, damage property and frighten ordinary people half to death, then those ordinary people can take you out of circulation for as long as is necessary.
The principle that we should try to understand criminals in order to help them integrate in a peaceful society is a laudable one. But it would seem that we have taken the idea that 'to understand is to forgive' a little too far, and we now fail to protect ourselves and our society against people who have grown up with the idea that no-one can restrain them in any way.

[1] Yes, I know these are 'minimum' tariffs, but does anyone seriously believe that they will be kept in after this time, or even released early if the jails are crowded enough?


  1. Yes, but John Major had a four year affair and is an adulterer. He's the worst (or best) example of human hypocrisy. Even though he’d probably want us to mind our own business considering his personal life; ironically, that’d take a person of understanding and less condemnation to do so.

    My point is, ‘even the mighty can fall.’ It’s all too easy to look at criminals as subhuman, but nevertheless they should be treated with fair consideration as human beings.

    Some people consider jail a deterrent to crime, but if that were so, then how come crime still exists? Rather than a preventative, it is in fact just one consequence. On the other hand, Police Officers are a deterrent to crime.

    Personally, I think jails need to be redesigned in actually fixing the people in them. As it stands, Jails are merely walls with toilets, crowded with people who want to kill each other. If you think a person is going to come out of jail a better person as they are now, then you’re wrong. I don’t think being in jail could ever build a positive character.

    But I agree some crimes are treated too sympathetically. Some priorities and consistencies of punishments are awful as well.

  2. John Major was a hypocrite because he was preaching 'Back to Basics' while shagging a lady who was not Mrs Major. Bad for him. But you can't seriously compare that with killing someone for a fiver. My point was that we have been through the 'understand them' routine and it hasn't worked. All we have is a group of people who believe that they can get away with anything - literally, murder in these cases. If they understood that serious wrongdoing will have serious consequences, and that those consequences will be very unpleasant indeed, then perhaps people will start thinking about what they do, and maybe start to respect the rights of others a little more. I think we should make every effort to rehabilitate offenders, but that's not incompatible with a strong approach to law and order. Right now, we have a feral class of people who will do whatever they feel like doing, and know that they are a) unlikely to be caught, and b) know what they have to plead in court in order to get easy treatment. Until this problem is dealt with, we are whistling in the wind.

    Actually, I think it's worse than that. I think we have a lot of people (not all young) who have no sense of right and wrong, who demand 'respect' but will not give it, and who see violence as the first resort, not the last.

  3. I still think those words of John Major are ridiculous, just as a generalisation.

    But you’re right. It's a rarity in people nowadays to realise others they hurt are in fact people, too. It's with this thought process though, that we can unfairly condemn the same people. This is done by a lack of understanding. I still think it's important to realise those who commit such acts are not subhuman. They need to be treated fairly, not necessarily sympathetically, but most importantly they need to be made proper members of society - I hate the idea of treating them as examples, it’s as if their humanity is being disregarded for a point to be made.

    My real point is, jails aren’t going to help people as they are now. Prison isn‘t a crime deterrent and never has been. If that were the case, then people wouldn’t be murdering others in the first place. Prison is a consequence, and in reality, a pretty harsh and unhelpful one. You might be able to argue we’re bettering our society by pruning the weeds, but the weeds are still a part of society; they’ve just been moved inside a box so we can’t see them. Prison society is in need of as much a fix as the rest, considering this is where we’re sending people who aren’t pleasant members of society. Once they get out, you’d want them to be better; especially with how much money goes into the prison system. This isn’t the case.

    And referring to this: ‘If you riot, damage property and frighten ordinary people half to death, then those ordinary people can take you out of circulation for as long as is necessary.’

    I can’t trust ‘ordinary people’ being reasonable enough to treat anybody they assume is criminal in a fair manner; not one bit. Because ‘ordinary people’ aren’t reasonable in these situations.

  4. My point was that is you are an 'ordinary person' and someone is disturbing your right to a normal life, then you have the right to do something about it. Ordinary people will often get it wrong (vide the 'paedophile/paediatrician' mix-up in Portsmouth), but those who are in charge of these things and are supposed to be experts seem to get it wrong a lot of the time. How many times do we read of a violent criminal let out early because the parole board thought he was no further danger, who then goes on to murder or rape someone? It's quite often.

    I would support better education and rehabilitation provision in prisons, because that is the best way to keep people out of prison and living a useful life, not because of any rights that the criminal might have to be treated kindly by the rest of us. As far as I am concerned, if you commit a violent crime, you sign away your human rights and the rest of us can do whatever we want with you.

  5. Agreed. I imagine my mind will change when I have a family and they take priority. For now I’m only nineteen, and evidently I’m idealistic.

    Thanks for the insight.

  6. If you're not idealistic at 19, there's something wrong with you. I'd like to think that I still have the same ideals as I had at 19 - in fact, I'm sure I do - but the way of interpreting them changes with age and experience. You are right that having a family changes your outlook fundamentally.

    One way in which I have changed in outlook is to be far less patient with the attitude that everyone should be forgiven for what they do. It's a fine principle (love the sinner, hate the sin, kind of thing), but in reality it only means that people with no self-control will behave in appalling ways and it is the ordinary people (and especially the poor and powerless) who suffer the most. Also, I have come to realise that I constantly modify my natural behaviour in the light of the needs of other people (politeness, driving safely, not breaking into people's houses and so on) and I can't see why other people shouldn't do the same.

    I was highly amused back in the 80s by a Private Eye cartoon, which had a man being mugged by a huge and aggressive-looking individual, while two people stood by and watched. One said to the other, "Of course, to the enlightened consciousness, they are both crying for help."

    You stick to your ideals, Jack, and keep an open mind too.


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