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Summer 1998
City Journal Summer 1998.
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The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.
The Politics and Culture of Decline

by Theodore Dalrymple
Not With a Bang But a Wimper.
Oh, to be in  E ngland

Zero Intolerance
Theodore Dalrymple

Look at the fist of a British criminal and chances are you'll find a blue dot tattooed on each knuckle. Each dot stands for a letter of the alphabet—A.C.A.B.—which together stand for All Coppers Are Bastards. When under arrest and in the custody of the police, however, the bearer of such a tattoo maintains that its symbolism is religious: the letters stand for Always Carry A Bible.

Among the poor, of course, the police have never been popular. But interestingly, today the all-coppers-are-bastards view of the police has spread to a large section of the bourgeois intellectual class. Not long ago, for example, a journalist told me, en passant, that he hated the police. I asked him why: had they falsely arrested, unjustifiably manhandled, brutally interrogated him? No, he replied: he had no personal reason; he just hated them for what they were.

Well, as King Lear said, nothing comes of nothing: and the journalist's hatred of the police was unlikely to have sprung completely at random and fully formed from his consciousness. I suspected, as is so often the case with opinions lightly adopted but firmly held, that this one was forged from a combination of ignorance, dishonesty, and fashion. By expressing a dislike of the police, a bourgeois intellectual is thereby establishing his solidarity with the poor. In an age of empathy, you can't claim to wish anyone well unless you fully share his feelings.

But the bourgeois intellectual needs to find reasons for his opinions: rationalization is, after all, his métier. And it isn't difficult for him to think up such reasons with regard to the police. Their function is, after all, to defend the social order: and since the social order is widely held to be responsible for the poverty of the poor, it follows that the police are in part responsible for that poverty. They are a part, not of the criminal justice system, but of the social injustice system.

The intellectual never acknowledges how much of his liberty he owes to the existence of the police—a humiliating thought, to which he prefers the idea that the comparative peace and tranquility in which he lives, and that make his work possible, emerge spontaneously from the goodwill of his fellow men, requiring no external coercion to maintain them. Since—in the opinion of the intellectual—the poor hate the police, and moreover as victims can think no wrong, it follows that weak policing would be of benefit to the poor.

It so happens that something close to a natural experiment in weak policing is under way in my district of the city, where the police are a minimal presence and intervene only in the very gravest of situations. Far from having adopted a policy of zero tolerance, as in New York, they have adopted one of zero intolerance; and their approach to crime is almost as abstract—as ethereal—as that of liberal criminologists. It is therefore of some interest, both practical and theoretical, to examine whether the quality of life of the poor has improved or deteriorated under this lax police regime.

The policy of zero intolerance appears to have sprung from the brains of the city's most senior policemen, increasingly indistinguishable in their public pronouncements from senior social workers. Their constituency is not the people of the city but the liberal intelligentsia. A policeman on the beat who had occasion to visit my ward recently told me that he and his colleagues were under orders not to arrest and charge anyone who was previously unknown to the police for crimes up to and including attempted murder. As an old hand nearing an eagerly anticipated retirement from a job he had once loved, he found this instruction deeply demoralizing. It was, he knew, a virtual incitement to crime.

The policy of zero intolerance is no mere local aberration. The chief of police of another force explained recently in an essay why it was necessary to keep arrests to a minimum. It takes four hours to process each one, he wrote, and therefore such arrests distracted the police from their other duties. He never explained what police duties could be more important than the apprehension of lawbreakers, nor did he call for a streamlining of the process of arrest (which requires, on average, 43 forms). Besides, he added, mere repression of criminality, whenever the police chanced to catch a criminal, would never on its own put an end to crime. Much better, he seemed to imply, to let the criminals get on with it.

And get on with it they have, not surprisingly. I encounter instances of police inaction in the face of crime every day. For example, a man in his early thirties arrived in the emergency department of my hospital recently, having taken a deliberate but not life-threatening overdose of tablets. His wife arrived while he was awaiting further medical attention. The pair resumed the quarrel that had been the occasion of his overdose, and before long he employed his usual final, irrefutable argument: his fists. The sound of his blows raining down on her head alerted the nurses to the situation: by the time they came to the wife's rescue, she was on the floor, vainly trying to avoid his kicks to her face and stomach.

The nurses called the police, two of whom duly arrived (an eventuality by no means guaranteed). They left soon afterward, without even having requested the husband not to behave in this fashion again. They told the nurses that it was a domestic, and that therefore they were powerless to act. An Englishman's emergency room, apparently, is his castle—and his wife his property.

That a crime is domestic—or, in the words of those who commit such a crime, just a domestic—has long been the most frequently cited of many police excuses for folding their hands and doing nothing. Their habitual reluctance to intervene in what they regard as essentially private disputes is the result, no doubt, of several considerations: among them, a laudable, if imperfectly thought-out, desire to separate the realm of personal morality from that of law. There should be a limit to state supervision of the relations between people, and not every morally reprehensible act should draw a legal sanction. The police view intervention in domestics (quite apart from its practical futility, for victims often balk at testifying in court) as an almost totalitarian extension of their powers.

But even on the most generous interpretation of the scope of the private—a senior British policeman once famously, or infamously, remarked that a certain murder was not serious: it was only a man killing his wife—what happened in the emergency room was not domestic, or even a domestic. It was an offense not merely against the victim but against public order. Yet still the police failed to act.

In one respect the police were correct in their understanding of the situation: the man's wife had forgiven him by the time she was picked up off the floor, and she would have refused to testify against him in court. She likewise refused all offers of help to obtain accommodation away from him (he would find her anyway, she said), and she didn't want a lawyer. Her only concern now was to bring him the things he said he would need during his stay in the hospital.

But the police didn't need the wife's testimony to bring a successful prosecution. The nurses had heard and seen enough to convict him 20 times over. The officers' final words of self-justification as they departed the scene were that they were too busy to deal with so trivial a matter. They did not mention what they were busy with.

The effect on the nurses of this dereliction of duty was—at least for a time, until further emergencies occupied their attention—profound and demoralizing. Not only did they feel, rightly, that the police considered valueless the evidence they could so easily have given, as if they were not trustworthy witnesses, but they felt that their position as law-abiding citizens anxious to do their duty was devalued, too.

Moreover, many of the nurses inhabit a world not so far removed, physically or morally, from that of the abused wife in the emergency room. Many of them consult me about their problems: one of the nurses in the emergency room that day had a drug-taking daughter whose various boyfriends were violent toward her; another had asked me earlier what to do about her violent common-law husband. So when they see a man beat up a woman in a public place with complete impunity, indeed with what almost amounted to police protection, they catch a horrifying glimpse of their own vulnerability.

And finally, the incident took place in the emergency department of a large inner-city hospital, in which a considerable proportion of the patients present were, almost by definition, of the same cast of mind as the violent husband. They would have remarked the impotence of the police in the face of this conduct and would have drawn the appropriate conclusion: that you can get away with anything short of murder.

In addition, the culprit himself would soon, no doubt, be spreading the good news in the pubs he frequented, embellishing the tale to present himself to his listeners as even more heroic in his defeat of the police than he already believed himself to be. When I spoke to him after the policemen left the emergency room, he told me that he was himself astonished that he had never once been called to account by the law for his numerous assaults, not only on his wife but upon many others. (His first assault on his wife had been at their wedding reception, in front of the guests.) One of the criteria for diagnosing psychopathy is an individual's failure to learn from experience: but thus far this man had not had the experience from which he might have failed to learn.

The police display perverse ingenuity in concocting reasons for nonintervention in domestic violence. A recent patient of mine had finally broken away from the jealous, drunken, and violent father of her three illegitimate children. She had found her own apartment and had lived there quietly for some time, when she held a birthday party for one of her children. But somehow her former boyfriend had discovered where she lived and, on that very afternoon, had rung at her door. She answered; he barged his way in. He dragged her by the hair into the room where the party was taking place and punched her to the ground, kicking her in front of the terrified children. Then he left.

She called the police. She was battered and bruised, and the children who had seen the assault were still there. The police said there was nothing they could do, because she had opened the door to her assailant. And they left.

The police opinion in this case appeared to be that, once you let a man into your house, he is free thereafter to behave in any way he likes. Even after her physical recovery, my patient was in no position to dispute this extraordinary police doctrine: she belonged to that vast class never taught to read or write properly. Unable to set out a letter—not knowing even that the first-person singular pronoun is written in the upper case (I tested her)—she was obliged to take the police at their word.

When I put this case to the police force's second in command, he expressed surprise. The only explanation he could think of for his policemen's conduct was that the woman had taken out a restraining order against the man and in effect nullified it by opening the door to him. It was this nullification, he hypothesized, that led to the police's failure to act. That so high-ranking a policeman (transparently a decent man) could have so deficient an understanding should terrify the law-abiding and comfort the wrongdoer.

In their struggle to stay inactive, the police often make a point I hear with some sympathy: that prosecution isn't worth the effort because of the inadequate sentences that follow conviction. For example, a prisoner I know, who had many times beaten up and half-strangled his girlfriend—who had three times threatened to kill her and had once kidnapped her—received a sentence that meant he'd serve only 15 months in jail (nine of them already served while awaiting trial) instead of the ten years' imprisonment the law allowed. He had made it crystal clear that he would keep pursuing his girlfriend, whatever sentence he received; and his previous record—he had burned the car of another girlfriend, then pregnant, who had tried to leave him—would have suggested to anyone except the judge that he would pose a threat to his former girlfriend and to any other woman he might meet in the future.

The judge's leniency was therefore callous in the extreme toward the well-being of society. But it would compound the damage to make the argument that, because a 15-month sentence was inadequate, it would have been better for this prisoner to have received no sentence at all. Nonetheless, this is precisely what the police implicitly do argue, and it remains one of the cornerstones of their edifice of passivity.

A drunk deliberately stubbed out his cigarette on the face of a senior nurse in our emergency department, burning her cheek. The police came but, having inspected her injury, declared that it was not severe enough for the crime to be worth prosecuting. Perhaps they reasoned that the drunk, not remembering what he had done after he had sobered up, would therefore not learn a lesson. As agents of the state, however, they had made clear what value the state placed on the physical safety of the nurse: zero.

Another standard excuse for police inaction is that the offender is mad, or at least is a psychiatric patient (not quite the same thing, of course). The merest hint of a psychiatric history—a single consultation with a psychiatrist five years previously is enough—will explain and excuse almost anything in the eyes of the police, and justifies a failure to prosecute.

Not long ago I was called to a police station to examine a man arrested after attempting to kill his lawyer. He had a long history of psychosis—caused or exacerbated by taking drugs—and lawbreaking. He had gone to his lawyer with a hammer with one end sharpened into a pick, had shouted, ‘You have to die!’ and had aimed a blow at the lawyer's head. Fortunately, the lawyer saw the blow coming, twisted out of the way, and received only a slight injury. His violent client tried again to hit him, but having missed, fled the office: after which the lawyer called the police.

It was clear that the man was mad: but I knew from experience that if I recommended he be admitted straight to the hospital, the police would forget the whole matter of the attempted murder. I insisted that charges be filed: but the police refused, saying—falsely, of course—that they were not permitted to prosecute madmen. They said that if he were not hospitalized, they would have to release him—which they did: first giving him back his hammer, for they had no right to deprive him of his property. Thus an attempted murder did not reach the crime statistics, and the police could congratulate themselves on the maintenance of public order.

Needless to say, the mad understand the impunity of madness well. Twice I have heard schizophrenics exclaim to the police, "You can't touch me, I'm a schizophrenic!" On the very day on which I wrote this, I interviewed a patient—an alcoholic—who sometime before had, while extremely drunk, tried to strangle his girlfriend. He had smashed her car, wrecked her apartment, and threatened to kill her daughter. By the time the police arrived, he had started to attack his girlfriend's neighbor, who had come to help. The police concluded that no sane man would behave like this, took him to the hospital, and left him there. As far as they were concerned, the incident was closed: and these crimes also did not reach the crime statistics. This is how we now control criminality in England.

Domestic crimes are not alone in getting such lighthearted treatment. In the last two weeks, the following three cases have come to my notice. An acquaintance of mine, a dealer in antique jewelry, exhibited at an antiques fair. Overnight, a thief broke into the exhibition hall and stole her jewelry, worth $32,000, as well as that of other exhibitors, worth a further $120,000. In this instance, the police caught the thief the following day: he was on bail for eight country-house burglaries, itself a sign of police frivolity, for, had they objected strenuously enough to the setting of bail, he would still have been in custody. Despite their swift apprehension of the culprit, however, the police had not recovered a single piece of jewelry (something a private detective surely would have been able to do); indeed, they claim to be too busy to make the effort. Little wonder that the insurance premiums on antique jewelry are too high for most small dealers to pay. So my acquaintance must swallow the whole loss—to her, a catastrophe.

A patient of mine became severely depressed after some young thieves, well known in the area, broke into the shed in her garden and stole her children's new bicycles. Her neighbors, it so happened, were able to make a clear videotape of the thieves as they stole, but—two weeks later—the police still had not responded to either my patient's or her neighbors' request for assistance. Bicycle theft, after all, is not a serious crime.

A prisoner with a long history of violent crime as well as theft and burglary was coming to the end of his most recent prison sentence. He frankly admitted to me that he was much happier in prison than at liberty: the enforced discipline of prison life enabled him to live at peace. He came to me in desperation: could I do something to prevent his release, for he knew he would soon commit a dangerous offense again, possibly even a murder? He had gone to the prison warden, asking not to be released. The warden told him that there was no legal way to do that. In an attempt to stay in prison, he then confessed to several serious crimes, with which he had never been charged. Corroboration of his confession would have been possible, and the warden called in the police. But they declined to take the matter further, saying that it was not in the public interest to do so. The prisoner then assaulted and seriously injured another inmate to receive more prison time. Again, the police came but declined to take the matter further, saying that it was not in the public interest to do so. The prisoner was released June 12.

The loss of nerve or will on the part of the police has occurred at precisely the same time as a weakening, almost to the point of extinction, of the informal but strong social restraints upon personal behavior that once made England so civil a country—restraints such as fear of what the neighbors will say. The lack of either internal or external restraint has allowed "natural" man to emerge: and far from being a delight, he is a charmless psychopath. Man is a wolf to Man, and more particularly to Woman.

Naturally, social trends do not affect all sectors of society equally. Weak policing affects principally the poor—the very people whose welfare the intelligentsia claimed weak policing would benefit. It is true that the middle classes haven't been unscathed: they pay ever-higher insurance premiums for their homes and cars, and they worry as never before about burglary. There is scarcely anyone in the country—even among the burglars themselves—whose first thought on returning home is not, "Have I been burgled?"

But these are trifling concerns beside my patients' pervasive and permanent sense of personal insecurity wherever they may be. They fear lawbreakers, because they know the police offer no protection. The degree to which fear of crime rules the lives of people in poor areas is something that my middle-class friends find hard to believe, let alone understand. Scores of my patients have told me that they leave their homes as rarely as possible for fear of being attacked or of having their homes broken into. Every week I meet patients who have been mugged or burgled three times or more in a year; last week I had a patient whom the children next door stone—literally shower with stones—whenever she leaves the house. They have broken her windows on innumerable occasions and have smeared the walls of her house with feces while she was out. No one has ever been apprehended for these offenses, and she has given up informing the police of them.

The pretense by intellectuals—which, alas, has not been without its practical effects in the real world—that the police are but the executive arm of a hypocritical bourgeoisie determined to preserve its ill-gotten gains at the expense of the poor, is terrifyingly shallow when tested against the experience of people who suffer weak policing. The idea that a juster social order would render the police redundant is utopian nonsense. A reliable and trustworthy police force is not a denial of freedom but a precondition of its exercise. For those who doubt it, I can only recommend the last lines of Pablo Neruda's poem of the Spanish civil war:

Come and see the blood
running through the streets!
Come and see the blood
running through the streets!
Come and see the blood
running through the streets!



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