For millions of its inhabitants, Britain is a failing state. It assumes responsibility for education and health care without regard for results; and it fails in its most basic duty, to ensure that its inhabitants can go about their business with reasonable security.
A recent incidentthe assault of a 96-year-old manhas brought home to the British public just how little it can rely on the state for protection. The assailant, 44, was frustrated that the elderly man was in his way as he tried to board a train. Shouting You bastard!, he punched the man in the face, blinding him in one eye. The attack occurred in full view of many other passengers, and a closed-circuit television camera captured it as well.
Police subsequently apprehended the man, who claimed that the 96-year-old had attacked him first. It would be difficult to imagine a more brutally unfeeling and egotistical crime or more cynical self-justification. It is extremely unlikely that the guilty man is a model of kindness in his other human relations.
The judge in the case, however, said that sending the man to jail would do nothing to protect the public, and therefore sentenced him to just three years probation. How he came to the opinion that requiring the perpetrator to have a brief chat once a week with a probation officer would achieve this objective is a complete mystery. As the judge himself conceded, a significant prison sentence would well be justified, and the charge was such that he had the power to sentence the guilty man to life imprisonment.
The very next day, fittingly enough, the government released figures revealing how probation endangers the public. Over the previous year, serious offenders who had been released from prison early and placed on probation committed at least 83 murders and rapes, a significant portion of the national total. Given the extremely low arrest rate for reported crimes of violence in Britainand bearing in mind that one-half of all crimes are not even reportedthe real figures for violence committed by serious offenders placed on probation after early release from prison must be significantly higher.
The train assault case was also a perfect illustration that, in the absence of proper sentencing, surveillance by CCTV cameras is perfectly useless and merely a form of official voyeurism. If a man can attack and seriously injure a 96-year-old without excuse in front of many eyewitnesses and a CCTV camera, yet receive what amounts to no punishment at allhe was even seen smirking as he left the courtwho can blame the public if it concludes that the British state lacks legitimacy?
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.