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By Theodore Dalrymple

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
Policeman in Wonderland
Spring 2000

The long march through the institutions—by which radical intellectuals have sought to remake society surreptitiously, without resort to the barricades—has succeeded so completely in Britain that it sometimes seems that a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values has taken place. The police are a prime case in point. Their leaders are now so desperate for the approval of liberal critics that they often seem more focused on public relations than on crime prevention and detection—on protecting their reputation rather than protecting the public. As a result, Britain is suffering a crime wave that is affecting areas hitherto spared, such as the West End of London—street robbery in the capital having increased by a fifth in the last 12 months alone.

For fear of criticism by liberals, the actions of the police now often are the mirror image of what they should be—and of what they have been in New York and other American cities, with dramatic reductions in the crime rate as a result. Yet however imbued with, or affected by, liberal values the police become, liberals will never accept them as full members of the human race or cease their carping, because it is, at base, the mere existence of the police that offends the liberal conscience, not any of their particular acts. For the permanent necessity of a police force suggests that the default setting of humanity is not to virtue and social harmony: that externally applied pressure to conform to decent behavior is a necessary component of any civilized society. And the admission that this is so (surely obvious to anyone not still in thrall to adolescent utopian dreams) undermines the very suppositions upon which the modern liberal desire to remove all external restraints upon behavior rests. We hate nothing so much as the living refutation of our cherished ideas.

Of course, one must not exaggerate the degree to which the police have been undermined: one's perception depends in part upon which end of the telescope one looks down. Seen from prison, for example, the police must still be doing a lot of their traditional work: why else are so many malefactors behind bars? Every day a new harvest, undiminished in size, comes in through the gates. Rare indeed are the cases of the wrongfully imprisoned—though the press trumpets the few that come to light in order to destroy public confidence in "the system." By means of the old rhetorical devices of suppressio veri and suggestio falsi, the predators on society appear its victims, and sympathy for the criminal becomes, in elite orthodoxy, the touchstone of a tender heart. But of the guilt of the vast majority of prisoners there can be no doubt, and it is the police who have been key in bringing them to justice.

But seen down the other end of the telescope, from the world outside prison, things look very different. Here it is not the wrongfully imprisoned but the wrongfully free who give rise to concern. For every person wrongfully imprisoned, there are literally hundreds who manifestly deserve to lose their liberty. Not only is this also an injustice (I have never understood the liberal assumption that if there were justice in the world, there would be fewer rather than more prisoners), but it makes life a torment for millions of people.

For those who live in the world of impunity—that is to say, the poorer half of the population—the police are not merely impotent but positively unwilling to do anything to rectify the situation. To err is human, to forgive divine: and the police have now taken up the role of divinities, making allowances for wrongdoers instead of apprehending them. The police forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Working in a hospital in an area where the police take a purely abstract, sociological view of crime—it is the natural consequence of deprivation and therefore neither blameworthy nor reducible by means of the application of the law—I quite often catch glimpses of police reluctance to deal with criminal offenses, even when committed in the presence of several reliable witnesses. The allowances they make for the offender (he had a bad upbringing, he once saw a psychiatrist and must therefore be psychologically disturbed, he is unemployed, he is an addict) reinforce their reluctance to undertake the paperwork nowadays consequent upon any arrest—paperwork imposed upon them, of course, by the attempt to answer the continual criticisms of the civil libertarians. The net effect has been to imprison the poor and old in their houses after dark and sometimes before it as well.

For example, a man in his late twenties was admitted to our ward one day, having taken an overdose of illegally obtained drugs. He was also an habitual inhaler of butane gas. I had known him a long time and suspected him of having stolen a piece of equipment from my office. He had a substantial criminal record—burglaries and assaults—and I knew him also from the prison.

He asked one of the senior physicians for a prescription of drugs that he wanted merely for pleasure. The physician quite properly refused, whereupon the patient became angry and abusive. He refused to calm down, and when he pinned the physician against the wall, the nurses called the police.

Having extricated the physician from his immediate predicament, the police considered their task ended. There was, in their view, no point in arresting a man so clearly out of his head as the patient—a man who knew not what he did and was therefore not answerable for his crime. What admirable compassion, and what a saving of time on paperwork, so that they might spread their compassion elsewhere!

Four weeks later, the same young man broke into the house of an aged priest at night and, on being interrupted by him, battered him brutally to death. On this occasion, of course, he was arrested, butane gas or no butane gas.

I know of many other, lesser instances of police refusal to do anything about clear infringements of the law, in cases where the evidence is undoubted and where the infringement is an obvious sign of things to come.

A prostitute was a patient in our ward, and her pimp arrived to visit her. He was a man of evil appearance and demeanor: gold front teeth glistened menacingly in his mouth; his shaven head bore the marks of more than one machete attack (or defense). In the past he had broken his prostitute's jaw and ribs; he had a long criminal record. He demanded of a nurse to know the diagnosis, treatment, and expected period of hospitalization of the patient; when the nurse refused to tell him on the grounds that the information was confidential, he backed her into a corner (in the presence of another nurse) and threatened to follow her home and set fire to her house, with her, her husband, and her children in it.

The police came and escorted the pimp out but otherwise took no action, though what he had said and how he had behaved were clearly criminal offenses. The nurse did not return to work and has not been seen since on our ward.

To take one more example: a young man arrived in our emergency department having taken a small overdose. As is usually the case in such incidents, he had just had a violent quarrel with his girlfriend. (The purpose of the subsequent overdose is threefold: first, to induce the girlfriend to call an ambulance rather than the police; second, to warn her not to leave him because he might kill himself, "and then you'll be sorry, you bitch"; and third, to present himself as the victim of his own behavior—and therefore not responsible for it—and in need of treatment.) His girlfriend arrived shortly afterward with the things that he would need for a hospital stay. He at once resumed the quarrel and began to beat her again, this time in front of the nurses. They called the police, who claimed that, because the assault had been so minor—the girlfriend was not yet badly injured—there was nothing they could do, especially as they were busy elsewhere. The police evidently did not care to speculate what this man must have been capable of in private if he behaved in this fashion in a public place in front of several reliable witnesses. And the effect of this example on those who saw it—particularly young men—must have been profound.

A young man went to a local family doctor and demanded addictive drugs for which there was no medical indication. The doctor—rather unusually in the circumstances—refused, and the patient became abusive and threatening. The doctor's receptionist called the police, who took the young man into custody. But instead of taking him to the police station and charging him, they brought him to the emergency department of our hospital, where they left him, as if they were merely a delivery service.

Once again he demanded drugs, and once again, on refusal, he became abusive and threatening. The nurses called the hospital security staff; but when, instead of leaving the hospital as they requested, he took a swing at one of them, the police were again called. This time they took him out and dumped him in the street around the corner.

I was myself the victim of a minor assault, significant because it was quite likely the harbinger of a future murder. It took place in the prison in which I work. A young prisoner asked me when he would receive his ration of tobacco, to which I replied, truthfully, that I did not know. He thereupon reached out of the hatch in his cell door and tried to hit me, in the process scratching my face slightly and grabbing my glasses, which he then broke into pieces and threw out of his window.

He had been imprisoned for assault on the police, who had been called after he had assaulted his girlfriend. Since his arrival in the prison, he had assaulted almost everyone with whom he had come into contact. He had attacked a warden so badly that he couldn't come to work for six weeks afterward. The warden informed the police of that assault, but they told him that assaults by prisoners on wardens were only to be expected and therefore they could—or rather would—do nothing. Naturally, assaults on the police themselves, however minor, are a completely different matter.

My attempts to have the prisoner charged with his assault on me came to naught. I was not really injured, and I have suffered no psychological ills from the assault. My motive in trying to have the prisoner charged and further imprisoned was to protect the public, for however inadequate a period, from a very dangerous man. But the police told me that they considered it not in the public interest to bring a prosecution, for clearly the offender was psychologically disturbed. In vain did I point out that it was therefore even more imperative that charges be brought. How could it be in the public interest for such a man to be walking the streets? And who would suffer? The poor, of course, among whom he moved.

This young man is now at liberty: but it is not at all unlikely that his liberty is someone else's imprisonment by terror.

I can only hope he will be re-arrested before he kills, but I wouldn't bet on it.

No doubt it might be objected that these are just anecdotes: but scores of anecdotes of the same kind become a pattern. Besides, my experience is precisely that of all my patients, many thousands of them. One told me, for example, that her former boyfriend had broken into her home no fewer than ten times, with the drunken intention, sometimes carried out, of committing violence against her, and that on each occasion she had called the police. On each occasion they had simply given him a ride back to his own lodgings, thus acting as a free taxi service. The moral of the story seems to be that if you should find yourself without money in a British city and in need of a lift home, you should assault someone. It is quicker than walking.

But only if you already have a criminal record, are drug-addicted, drunk, or in some other way disreputable or reprehensible. For the police, so sluggish in dealing with real wrongdoing, are like avenging angels when it comes to the merest whiff of suspicion that respectable persons may have been up to no good. Then they pursue matters to the uttermost ends of the earth, like those breeds of dogs that, once they have sunk their teeth into flesh, never let go. In this way, the police hope to demonstrate to the liberals that they are not prejudiced against the poor, as they are so often accused of being.

Recently, for example, a man was admitted to our hospital having taken an overdose of painkillers while he was very drunk. The hospital staff knew the patient well: he had been abusive to most of them at some time in his career as a recurrent patient. He had a very long criminal record. During a recent hospital admission, the nurses had called the police because he had assaulted a patient in the bed opposite his. As usual, the police did nothing, because, after all, he was a patient and therefore a suffering human being, and no decent person could arrest, much less charge, a sufferer. (The police, of course, didn't allow the source of his suffering to influence their indiscriminate compassion.)

During his last admission to my ward, he took himself to the lavatory to smoke and then refused to come out again. Since he needed an antidote to the pills he had taken and might otherwise die, the nurses tried to persuade him to return to his bed. He refused in no uncertain terms, and the nurses called the security staff. They hauled him, struggling, back to his bed, where the treatment was given, and his life was duly saved.

Two weeks later, this same man took himself off to the local police station to accuse the security staff of assault. The police, of course, knew this man to be a recidivist criminal, a drunk, a liar, a general nuisance, and inclined to violence into the bargain: but they took his complaints seriously. Having refused to act when he assaulted the patient opposite him, they now interviewed the security men, not once but repeatedly, under caution that anything they said might be used in evidence against them. They interviewed other hospital staff to ferret out any evidence that might lead to the prosecution of the security men. As of this moment, the investigations continue, despite the fact that the only evidence is the man's word, and that in the meantime he has committed suicide while drunk, so that he can no longer be called as a witness. The police have hinted that they might still arrest the security staff.

The police have told the hospital authorities that they are duty bound to take every complaint seriously and investigate it thoroughly, but this they must know to be an unscrupulous and stupid lie, for in the ten years that I have worked in the hospital they have never taken any complaint by a member of the staff seriously. Instead, they

take the part of a drunken psychopath and ignore the safety of the hospital staff—to demonstrate that they have no social prejudices that might offend liberal opinion. As a result, the security staff are now understandably reluctant to lay a hand upon an obstreperous or violent patient, leaving the rest of the hospital staff completely unprotected at a time when assaults upon them are increasing.

This case is no isolated instance of the police pursuing the obviously innocent and respectable. I will relay just one more, out of many. A patient of mine, the son of Indian immigrants, came home from university, where he was studying physics, and helped his parents in their family business, a small convenience store. The young man was of unblemished character and pleasing personality. He was ambitious and had an excellent future.

Three white youths came into the shop while he was serving and demanded to buy some beer. They appeared to him to be underage, and he asked for identification. They began to abuse him with the racial slurs all Indian shopkeepers suffer at some point from modern Britain's new legions of ill-educated, uncouth, and depraved young men. Then one of them took some beer from a refrigerator, and the three of them walked out, laughing.

Perhaps foolishly, my patient followed them and demanded the return of the beer. The three set upon him, badly bruising him; but, in the process, one of them swung a punch at him and missed, his arm going through the store window. (A surprising proportion of British criminals have had the tendons of their forearms and wrists severed by plate-glass injuries: an "occupational hazard," as criminals openly call such injuries.) The youth was badly hurt and required a six-hour operation to repair his arm. As soon as the injury occurred, the fight stopped, and—with considerable forbearance—my patient invited the injured youth into the shop, where he called an ambulance and bound up the injury as best he could while waiting.

Not surprisingly, the police were soon involved, and a week later my patient was astonished to be arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm, a serious crime potentially carrying a long prison sentence. The three youths, all with long records of serious wrongdoing, had claimed that, for no reason at all, this hitherto law-abiding and even rather timid man had suddenly followed them out of the shop and set upon all three of them, in the process injuring one of them severely. The police treated this preposterous story in all seriousness, as if it might have been true. No person of minimal intelligence would have given it a moment's credence, yet my patient was being pursued through the courts with all rigor possible: and in the meantime, his life had been wrecked: he was a shell of his former self, he has twice tried to kill himself, and the law's delay is such that he might try again (and succeed) before the case is resolved, probably by the judge throwing it out as being utterly unworthy of his court.

It is not racism that explains this extraordinary episode, but on the contrary, another intrusion of liberal ideology into policing. The three youths, being vicious, dishonest, at best semiliterate, and probably unemployable, needed protection from the ill will and prejudice of the respectable, who were responsible for their deprivation because of the unjust structure of the society from which they, the respectable, had so unfairly benefited. By taking the obviously bogus and conspiratorial complaints of these three youths seriously, the police were demonstrating to a liberal constituency that they did not automatically side with the respectable against those whom Labour Party bigwigs call, as they cant their way through their next bottle of champagne, the socially excluded.

The national priorities of the police can be seen in two revealing facts. The first is that the police are considering using an expensive hi-tech satellite tracking system to catch speeding drivers. The second is the fate of the chief of police of the northern city of Middlesbrough.

I do not praise my fellow countrymen lightly, but there is one aspect of their conduct that is markedly superior to that of other nations: their driving habits. They drive, on the whole, with reasonable consideration for others. Why their good manners should be confined to the road I do not know, but it is so. For years, our road accident rate has been by far the lowest of any country with comparable levels of traffic; our road fatality rate is far lower than France's, Germany's, or Italy's.

One might have supposed that the police would count themselves lucky to have a nation of relative law-abiders as far as traffic regulations are concerned, allowing them to concentrate on more important matters. But no. With ever increasing officiousness, they set up cameras in our streets and concentrate their efforts on the least manifestation of speeding and other minor infringements of traffic regulations. The expensive satellite system is the next stage in the campaign.

At the same time, the chief constable of Middlesbrough, a man called Ray Mallon, has been suspended from duty for the last 26 months. At first, his superiors alleged that he had made false expense-account claims, but it turned out that if anything he had underestimated the reimbursement he was owed. His enemies in the police hierarchy instituted a desperate search for evidence of other wrongdoing by him, so far without success. As he himself has said, he has been treated worse than any criminal.

Why this persecution? Simple: Mallon is a charismatic policeman dedicated to the proposition that the police force can reduce the level of crime, even with all the obstructions those who imagine they are well-meaning place in its path. Having brought about a startling reduction of crime in the town of Hartlepool—a feat that made him into a local hero—he was promoted to the larger town of Middlesbrough. There he said he would resign if he had not reduced the crime rate by a fifth within 18 months. He did it in nine.

Mallon became the most famous policeman in the country. Clearly, he was the kind of leader who would not ask his men to do what he was not prepared to do himself. His drive was formidable and perhaps (even to someone like me) a little frightening. But he had brought an improvement in the quality of many people's lives, and no one has ever been able to show that he did it by illicit or foul means. He merely applied the law.

His suspension was the result of the terror he aroused, not in the public but in other senior police officers. If Mallon could do it in as tough a beat as Middlesbrough—the very model of modern urban deprivation—why could the other chief constables not do it? He was setting a bad and dangerous example for them. If Ray Mallon were allowed to continue in his post, the general population would get the idea that a high crime rate was not an inevitable aspect of modern life or an act of God. Therefore he had to go, on any pretext that came to hand: and when he went, about a sixth of the population of Middlesbrough signed a petition for his immediate reinstatement.

Looking down one end of the telescope, then, we see the police doing their job as they always have. Looking down the other, however, we see them subverting the purpose for which they were instituted, largely from fear of liberal criticism, which, as American readers well know, is impervious to fact. These liberals pride themselves on their tenderheartedness: but the warm glow it imparts to them comes at the expense of the poor, who as a practical consequence live in a torment of public and private disorder, which I have trembled to behold every day of the last ten years of my professional life.

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