Barbarians on the Thames

The state has failed these Britons in one other respect, perhaps the most significant in helping to explain the riots: it has not repressed their propensity to crime. It has given criminally inclined Britons the (correct) impression of impunity. Consider that the British police catch the culprit of just one robbery in 12 and that just one in eight convicted robbers goes to prison in the U.K. Since the number of robberies is much greater than the number of robbers—each robber tends to commit many such crimes—failure to imprison robbers, and to do so for a long time, is in effect to grant the state’s imprimatur to robbery.

When one bears in mind that leniency is shown toward criminals who have committed other serious offenses as well, it is no surprise that the young and criminally inclined should believe in their own impunity. They may not be able to do arithmetic, but they can certainly recognize long odds when they see them. They know, too, that they have respectable society on the run when successive lord chief justices have complained that too many Britons are sent to prison and that such sentences should not be administered to first-time burglars (meaning, of course, the first time that they get caught, not the first time that they burgle, a distinction that seems to have escaped their lordships). It would not be too much to say that recent lord chief justices of England are a major cause of the riots.

Crime, in short, has been normalized as a way of life. For further evidence of that proposition, recall that the pretext for the August orgy of looting and arson was the shooting of one Mark Duggan by the police, who thought that he had a gun and was going to shoot them. What Duggan’s friends and relatives said about him was highly revealing. Duggan’s girlfriend observed that if Duggan had had a gun and had seen the police, he would have run away. This is not exactly a paean to his peaceful and law-abiding way of life; she did not claim that it was unimaginable for him to have been carrying a gun. And if she knew that he might have been carrying a gun, she knew a lot more about him and his way of life than she was revealing. A sister said, yes, Mark was “involved in things,” but he was not violent. She delicately refrained from saying what those “things” were, but her way of putting it suggested that she was using a code that almost anybody of her milieu would be able to crack. A friend noted that she did not believe the original press reports, subsequently proved false, that Duggan had shot first at the police because “Mark is not so stupid to shoot at the police.” The word “stupid” implies only a prudential and not an ethical reason for Duggan’s behavior; presumably, there were others at whom it would not be stupid to shoot.