Friday, December 03, 2004

crime and punishment

I’m not proud of those summary judgements I’ve made in the course of my learning how to be a father. I reckon that in half the cases I pulled the twins apart and shouted at one of them for trying to bite the other’s ear off it was the other one’s fault.

there's no pragmatic test of whether or not a judicial system works. justice, like most social systems, is an idea: as much a matter of belief as analysis. under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, theft is said to have dropped dramatically compared with former years. whether or not this had anything to do with the fact that Taliban justice was peremptory and ruthless, in strict application of Shia law, so that thieves always had their hands chopped off within minutes of a judge's edict, is in fact a matter of belief as much as anything else, even though the connection would seem to be conclusive. a Taliban philosopher would argue that the strict application of the law and the punishment of transgressors was merely one factor in the improvement of the Afghan moral character, part of the reforming principle that applied throughout the country under the Taliban guidance at this time. he would maintain that the more rigorous resumption of a devotional study of the Qu’uran was the more significant contributory factor in the reformation of criminal characters, whose moral lapses such teachings would inevitably have pre-empted.

at risk of being considered a total social terrorist, I have to confess that I don't much believe in law and order. I’d better explain that. I think it matters that each of us should have some idea as to how we'd like to see things being run, rather than just grumbling about how badly it seems to be run, even though we know that such dreaming is utterly futile, and one of my little foibles is that I think people, left to their own devices, are perfectly capable of sorting things out for themselves without having to resort to the law, which, far too often, gets it terribly terribly wrong. the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s statistics show that since 1985 there have been over 85,000 miscarriages of justice, as evidenced by successful appeals against criminal conviction. now, I know that I'm supposed to think that there are bad men out there who want to take things from me and harm my family, and that's why we have the daily mail and the sun and itv news and crimewatch to keep us informed about them, and that's why we have a legal system to protect us from them and punish the wrongdoers. however, the longer and the harder you look around with eyes uncorrected by such lenses, the clearer it becomes that the amount of wrong being done on an annual basis by these people to people such as you and me is but a teeny-weeny gnat's turd compared to the sewage farm being dumped on us daily by the real villains.

imagine a world without police. what do you see? total collapse of civil society? looted shopping malls, cars burning in the streets, gang shootouts outside safeways, that sort of thing?

so imagine, instead, starting over, re-inventing this tinderbox society with one that wouldn't explode the moment you removed the safeties. you don't actually have to do very much. we're already - most of us - bringing our kids up to believe that it's wrong to take things from each other without asking permission, that it works better to cooperate with each other in order to achieve an objective than to fight over it, that some difficult things are worth working at rather than giving up on, that bullying is wrong, that it's important to recycle and look after the planet and give money to help starving kids in Africa. so where's the problem?

there are some - count me out - who believe in something called 'evil', which comes in various shades from grey to satanic black, and that some kids get infected by when they start growing breasts or beards (or, in a few unlucky cases, both), and that this accounts for how they get to be wayward and start doing wrong and needing to be brought back in line by being sent to prison or having their single-parent benefits cut or excluded from ever being allowed to appear on television, ever. so anyway, this evil thing, once it happens, means that we all need to be on our guard against it and take precautions, which are often quite expensive. living in a safe part of the city is expensive. sending our kids to the right kind of school is expensive. being comprehensively insured against all contingencies is expensive. so, the more money we have, the better we can insulate and defend ourselves and our families from it. so that's why it's good to be rich. and that's why we call the rich the winners and the poor the losers, because the poor have lost their way in this fight against evil, and they're to be both pitied and treated warily, because, at the slightest opportunity, they'll slit our throats and take away all our money and spend it on drink and drugs and gaudy entertainments.

them and us - the only historic divisions that matter.

but what if 'evil' doesn't exist? (it doesn't, by the way, just in case you were wondering about the rhino's position here) what if it was the inspired invention of - oh, some priest, let's say – conceived in order to help convince us that we should do what he advises or else.... and what if this idea were taken up by some other people - politicians, say - who, recognising a good scam when they saw one, thought hey, that's a really good way of keeping people on their toes, keeping them onside, keeping them quiet about all the little compromises they'll have to make in the course of keeping this evil stuff at bay.

there are some of us - go on, chortle, have your fun - who really thought we'd seen the back of all that 'evil' stuff some time ago. this was meant to be the dawning of the age of aquarius, for those of you who need reminding. but times change. boy, how they do change.

by and large, I still reckon people are essentially decent. scoff as much as you like. I've said it before, I'll say it again. the only difference between that palestinian kid and that israeli kid is an historic cultural difference - and if you're going to try and persuade me that arab genes are different from jewish genes, then you can fuck off right now. neither is born with an inherited tendency to tear the other’s throat out on sight. similarly, if you're going to argue that a kid born to a black single mother from the St Pauls side of Bristol is inherently more inclined to be a loser than the daughter of a BBC producer living in Clifton, you're going to have to say why, and you're going to have to do so without pussyfooting around either the race or the social deprivation thing. that both will more likely than not turn out to be decent citizens is a triumph of common sense over media distortion of the blindingly obvious demographic facts.

given a level playing field of education and social opportunity (indulge a dreamer), the average kid will turn into a decent person, provided you don't poison that well of education with religious and/or nationalistic dogma and/or throw in the bias of an excessively wide gap of social advantage. the majority - I say again - the vast majority of this gloriously diverse mix of sentient beings called humans consists of decent, sensible people who know what the difference between right and wrong is without having it rammed down their throats by either the priests or the mullahs or the rabbis or the politicians, and, given a free choice, will choose to behave well towards their family, their friends, their neighbours, and strangers, in that order, so long as that behaviour is reciprocated.

a system of justice that wrongly condemns over four thousand innocent people a year – and subsequently compounds that by presenting them with a bill for their board and lodging in prison – is nothing to be proud of, but it could be a whole lot worse.

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