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What Causes Crime?

from the magazine

What Causes Crime?

Spring 1998
Public safety

As I browsed in a bookshop shortly after my arrival in New Zealand on a recent visit, I came upon a volume of national statistics, in which I discovered, to my amazement, that New Zealand's prison population is half as large again, per capita, as Britain's. And suddenly that remote nation, so far from Britain geographically and so close culturally, seemed an enormous conundrum for someone like me, with an interest in crime.

After all, for more than a century, we British have thought of our former colony as a better, cleaner Britain. By 1900, New Zealand was already the healthiest place in the world. Almost the same size as Great Britain, it has a population equal to greater Manchester's alone. It is free of the squalor and decay so prominent in all English cities and towns, and if there is no great wealth there, neither is there much poverty. With one of the earliest welfare states in the world, it has an egalitarian ethos, and one can't readily tell a mechanic from a neurosurgeon from his manner of speech or of dress. The way of life is informal, the pace relaxed. Add all this to the impressive per-capita GDP figures, and New Zealand has one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Such a society—prosperous, democratic, egalitarian—should be virtually free of crime, if the commonplace liberal explanations of criminality were true. But they aren't, and New Zealand is now almost as crime-ridden as its mother country, itself the most crime-ridden nation in western Europe (along with prosperous, democratic, egalitarian Holland). Indeed, in the ever-upward trend in the crime figures, New Zealand is only a handful of years behind Britain and, in point of homicide, a few years in advance of it. This fact is of great theoretical interest, or ought to be: it is an overwhelming refutation of the standard liberal explanations of crime.

Browsing further in the bookshop, I wasn't in the least amazed to turn up a book by a liberal criminologist who explained the startling imprisonment statistics by what he called the New Zealand criminal justice system's "obsession" with punishment. In fact, since the number of serious crimes in New Zealand (as everywhere else) has increased at a vastly greater rate than the number of prisoners, it would be more accurate to accuse the system of an obsession with lax enforcement, pleas of mitigation, excuse finding, and leniency—anything but punishment.

Shortly after my visit to the bookshop, my hostess in Wellington recalled over dinner a curious episode from her Christchurch childhood. When she was six, she recounted, her mother had taken her on a kind of pilgrimage to see the very spot in a park where the famous Parker-Hulme murder had taken place six years earlier, in 1954. This murder is the subject of the recent celebrated New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures, and in the last two decades it has been the subject of much liberal—that is to say, unctuously nonjudgmental—reinterpretation, which the New Zealand intelligentsia now almost universally, and unthinkingly, accepts. This acceptance is a phenomenon of great cultural significance, and it begins to answer the conundrum that so fascinated me throughout my New Zealand visit.

Gifted and intelligent, Juliet Hulme (pronounced "hume") and Pauline Parker had just finished their studies at Christchurch's most prestigious girls' high school. Their relationship was exceptionally close, but  the Hulme family's impending return to England threatened them with separation. When Parker's mother refused to allow her daughter to follow Hulme, the girls decided to kill her. They bashed her repeatedly over the head with a brick wrapped in a stocking, having met her in the park ostensibly for a cup of tea and a stroll. The murder was premeditated, as the jocular tone in which Parker anticipated the happy event in her diary proved.

The case transfixed New Zealand and a large part of the world. My hostess's mother took her daughter to the site of this extraordinary murder because of the fascination that evil holds for those who have little personal contact with it. Christchurch in those days was a quiet, prosperous, provincial city that prided itself on its English gentility, that did not have a single restaurant outside the hotels, and that approached nearest to the excitement of wrongdoing in the daily enactment of the "six o'clock swill," that strange institution brought about by a law forbidding the sale of alcohol in public bars after six in the evening. Men would drink as much and as fast as they were able between leaving their offices and six o'clock, with sometimes unedifying results. So uneventful was life in Christchurch that to this day all its inhabitants over a certain age can point to the exact site of the murder, despite the explosion of serious crime in the intervening period.

The shift in the interpretation of the Parker-Hulme case signals a sea change in New Zealand's attitude toward crime in general, a change that has occurred everywhere else in the Western world. Public opinion at the time universally regarded the Parker-Hulme murder as the evil act of evil girls acting in the grip of an evil passion. Nowadays a different interpretation is almost as universal. A well-known book on the case, Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View, by two lesbian academics, Julie Glamuzina and Alison Laurie, sums up today's prevailing opinion.

According to the reinterpretation, the Parker-Hulme case was not a brutal and pointless murder but the natural, inevitable outcome of a grand passion thwarted by narrow-minded social prejudice and intolerance. New Zealand was then a repressed and repressive society, and something had to give. The authors unquestioningly accept the hydraulic model of human desire, according to which passion is like the pus in an abscess, which, if not drained, causes blood poisoning, delirium, and death. If society prevented two lesbian adolescents from acting upon their passion, therefore, it was only to be expected that they should have done to death the mother of one of them. The primordial wrongness of bashing people with bricks has vanished altogether.

In support of their hypothesis, the two authors asked a number of lesbians who grew up at the time of the case for their reaction to it. Yes, they replied, they understood the girls only too well, for they themselves had sometimes harbored murderous feelings toward their parents. Both the authors and the respondents overlooked the significant moral difference between occasionally wishing one's mother would drop dead and causing her actually to do so. Nor is this obtuseness exclusive to lesbians. The Los Angeles Times reported the film's director, Peter Jackson, as regarding his own film as nonjudgmental. This, of course, lays bare the curious moral stance of our age: it is not wrong to bash an innocent woman to death with a brick, but it is wrong to condemn the deed and its perpetrators.

From being branded monsters of depravity, Parker and Hulme now appear almost martyrs to a cause. Public opinion admires them—not because they managed after their release from five years' imprisonment to make successful new lives for themselves, thus pointing to the hope and possibility of redemption (Juliet Hulme has become an internationally acclaimed crime novelist, under the name Ann Perry). Instead, it's because they are thought to have engaged in  a lesbian affair at a time of extreme primness and propriety in New Zealand—though Hulme explicitly denies that this was the case. They are believed to have acted upon forbidden desires, the greatest feat of heroism that the bien-pensants of our age can imagine.

But of course, if repression of desire were truly the cause of crime, one would have expected the crime rate to fall as social and legal obstacles to the expression of desire were removed. And there can be little doubt that New Zealand has become much less straitlaced than it was in the 1950s. It is far more tolerant of people doing their own thing than it was then. It is thus a natural experiment for the verification or refutation of the hydraulic model of desire.

When Parker and Hulme committed their murder, the whole of New Zealand recorded annually about 100 serious violent offences. Indeed, it was the extreme contrast between the brutality of the crime andthe placidity of the country that made it so startling: had it occurred in Colombia, no one would have given it a moment's thought. Forty years later, after continued loosening of restraints upon the expression of desire, the number of violent offenses in New Zealand has increased by four to five hundred times. The population has not quite doubled in the interval. Perhaps reporting practices have also changed, but no one could seriously doubt that violent offenses had increased enormously (by 400 percent between 1978 and 1995 alone), and increased in viciousness as well. There is no genre of modern crime—from serial rape to mass killing—from which New Zealand is now immune. Gone forever are the days (within the memory of people by no means old) when everyone left his house unlocked and deliveries of cash to banks in country towns could be left untouched overnight on the pavement outside.

The Parker-Hulme case is far from the only case in New Zealand in which explanation has slid inexorably into moral neutrality and then total exculpation of crime. This moral neutrality, which begins with intellectuals, soon diffuses into the rest of society and provides an absolution in advance for those inclined to act upon their impulses. It acts as a solvent of any remaining restraint. Criminals learn to regard their crimes not as the result of decisions they themselves have taken but as the vector of abstract and impersonal forces upon which they exert no influence.

The most prominent New Zealand case now undergoing exculpatory reinterpretation is that of a woman called Gay Oakes, currently serving a life sentence for the murder of her common-law husband, Doug Garden, father of four of her six children. She poisoned his coffee one day in 1994, and he died. She buried him in her backyard: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and Doug Garden to dug garden, as it were.

The case has become a cause célèbre because Doug Garden was by most (though not all) accounts a very nasty man, who unmercifully battered and abused Gay Oakes for the ten years of their liaison. Oakes has now written and published her autobiography, to which is appended a brief essay by her lawyer, one of the best-known advocates in New Zealand, Judith Ablett-Kerr. The lawyer, who is fighting to get her client's sentence reduced, argues that Oakes was suffering from what she calls "battered-woman syndrome" and therefore could not be held fully responsible for her acts, including poisoning. Women who undergo abuse over so long a period, the argument goes, do not think clearly or rationally and must therefore be held to a different standard of conduct from the rest of us.

There is no doubt, of course, that women abused over a long period are often in a confused state of mind. At least one such woman consults me every working day of my life. But the idea that a battered woman suffers from a syndrome that excuses her conduct, no matter what, has a disastrous logical consequence: that battering men also suffer from a syndrome and cannot be held accountable for their actions. No one, then, is individually responsible for what is done. This is no mere theoretical danger: I have male patients who claim precisely this and ask for help in overcoming their battering syndrome. Of the many indications that their behavior is under voluntary control, one is that they ask for help only when threatened with a court case or a separation, and resume their destructive conduct once the danger has passed.

The battered-woman-syndrome concept is uncompromising in its rejection of personal responsibility. The truth is that most (though not all) battered women have contributed to their unhappy situation by the way they have chosen to live. Gay Oakes's autobiography clearly, if unwittingly, illustrates her complicity in her fate, though she artlessly records the sordid and largely self-provoked crises of her own life as though they had no connection either with one another or with anything she has ever done or omitted to do. Even in prison, with a lot of time at her disposal, she has proved incapable of reflection on the meaning of her own past; she lives as she has always lived, in an eternal, crisis-ridden, unutterably wretched present moment. Her life story reads like a soap opera written by Ingmar Bergman. And the more that people choose—and are financially enabled by the state—to live as she has lived, the more violence of the kind she has experienced will there be. The lessons to be drawn from her case are myriad, but they are not those that the liberals draw.

Born in England, Oakes went to live in Australia in early adolescence. Though not devoid of intelligence, she chose to follow the crowd in not taking school seriously, and she married thoughtlessly at the age of 16. The marriage didn't last ("we weren't ready for it"), and by the age of 20 she had two children by different men. She claimed to love the second of the men, but nevertheless alienated him by a casual affair with yet another man: her whim was law. Then, still in Australia, she met her future victim. One of her first experiences of him was watching him smash up a bar in a drunken rage.

Before long, by her own account, he was habitually drunk, jealous, and violent toward her. He repeatedly cheated her of her money so that he could gamble, told outrageous and transparent lies, and was lazy even as a petty criminal. He broke his promises to reform time out of number. Nevertheless, the question did not occur to her (nor has it yet occurred to her, to judge from her memoirs) whether such a man was a suitable father for her children.

Four years into their relationship, by which time she had had two of his children, he abandoned her for his native New Zealand. Some time later, he wrote to say that he had abjured alcohol and to acknowledge that he had treated her very badly. Would she now rejoin him in New Zealand?

Although she had received innumerable such promises before, although he had abundantly proved himself to be worthless, lazy, unreliable, dishonest, and cruel—if her own account of him is to be believed—she nevertheless entertained his proposal. "All this time, Doug had blamed me for his behaviour and his admission that he was responsible for his own actions had me fooled," she wrote. "I still loved him and I really believed he had finally realised that the way he had treated me was wrong. I struggled with myself over whether to go to New Zealand. . . . In the end, I had to admit to myself that I missed Doug and wanted to be with him."

Having poisoned her loved one six years and two children later, she found he was too heavy to bury without help from a friend. Halfway through the burial (which she revealed to no one else, until the police found the body 14 months later), she feared that she and her friend might be caught in flagrante and was seized with misgivings. "I was terribly sorry that I had got Jo [her friend] involved," she recalled. "I had thought we should be just pushing him over a cliff somewhere."

This is the woman whom we (and the New Zealand courts) are seriously invited to believe is a helpless victim, a woman who, though not mentally deficient, seems never once in her life to have thought more than ten minutes ahead, even about such matters as bringing a child into the world. And in this, of course, she was a true child of modern culture, with its worship of spontaneity and authenticity and its insistence that the forswearing of instant gratification is unnecessary, even an evil to be avoided. In this sense—and in this sense alone—was she a victim.

While liberal intellectuals in New Zealand explain away such crimes as hers in this frivolous fashion, the entire New Zealand criminal justice system has come under attack in a kind of pincer movement. Miscarriage of justice of two kinds—one that liberals use for inflammatory and destructive ends, and the other that casts doubt on the sanity of the courts—undermines confidence that the enterprise of distinguishing guilt from innocence is even worth undertaking. If guilt and innocence are so easily confounded, so difficult to distinguish both in theory and in practice, what is the point of self-restraint?

The miscarriage of justice that liberals wave as a banner is the case of David Bain, a young man who languishes in jail, having been found guilty of murdering his entire family one morning in 1994. An Auckland businessman, Joe Karam, has since devoted his life and wealth to exposing the sloppy police work, the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, the incompetence of the legal defense, and the immobility of the appeal system that have resulted in the young man's life sentence. Karam has quite plausibly convinced many New Zealanders that he is right, and that his alternative theory of the death of Bain's family—namely, that his father shot them and then himself—is far more credible than the official police version.

Karam himself comes to the conclusion in the book he wrote about it that the verdict proves the essential inadequacy of the criminal justice system. This is an understandable, though mistaken, reaction by a man who has immersed himself for years in a single case of injustice. But his good-faith conclusion is echoed and amplified in bad faith by liberals.

They maintain on the basis of the Bain case (and one or two others) that New Zealand wrongfully locks up thousands of people, and that therefore it must change its criminal justice system completely. What they know full well and artfully suppress, however, is that any system that deals with a large number of cases will occasionally make mistakes, even bad ones, since all human institutions are imperfect. The new system that would replace the old would likewise make mistakes, and not necessarily fewer. What liberals object to in their hearts, therefore, is not this system of criminal justice but any system of criminal justice. For in the liberal view, we are all equally guilty and therefore all equally innocent. Any attempt to distinguish between us is ipso facto unjust. Parker and Hulme were just innocent schoolgirls, after all, who did what any such innocent schoolgirls would have done in their circumstances.

Another case of injustice, even more destructive in its effects than the Bain case, is the case of Peter Ellis, a young man accused and found guilty in 1996 of horrific sexual abuse of children in a municipal day-care center in Christchurch. The case has many, and eerie, parallels with a notorious case that took place in the town of Wenatchee, Washington.

It was alleged and supposedly proved in court that Ellis had strung children up, sodomized them, and made them drink urine and have oral sex with him. This continued for a prolonged period, without any physical evidence of his activities ever having come to light. No parent suspected that anything was wrong until the initial accusation was made, and then accusations followed in epidemic fashion.

It now emerges that much of the evidence was tainted. The woman who made the first accusation was a fanatic who possessed and had read a great deal of literature about satanic abuse. The detective in charge of the investigation (who has since resigned from the police) had an affair with her and with another of the accusing mothers. The foreman of the jury was related to one of the accusers. Many of the children have since retracted their testimonies, which social workers had obtained by lengthy interrogation. And now the homosexual lobby has alleged that Ellis was accused in the first place because he was a homosexual, and because it was unusual for a man to work in a day-care center. The controversy over the case threatens to degenerate into an argument as to who is most politically correct.

A New Zealand court has given credence to accusations that even the Spanish Inquisition might have found preposterous, a sign oddly enough of how far the courts have come under the influence of the bien-pensants, and how much they fear their censure and crave their approbation. For sexual abuse is the one crime that escapes the all-embracing understanding and forgiveness of such liberals, being a crime whose supposed pervasiveness in all ages exposes as hypocritical the pretensions of bourgeois society to decency and morality and makes clear, as well, that any one of us, in the hands of a sufficiently sensitive therapist, might discover his own secret victimhood, absolving him of responsibility for his life and actions. Sexual abuse is thus an intellectual battering ram with which to discredit the traditional edifice of self-restraint and to wipe away the personal responsibility of individuals, and no judge can do himself harm in the eyes of the right-thinking by taking the hardest and most punitive of lines toward it, whether it actually occurred in any particular instance or not.

Where crime is concerned, then, New Zealand presents a curiously familiar pattern to a visitor from Britain (and would, no doubt, to an American visitor as well): a dramatically elevated crime rate, a liberal willingness to explain away the worst crimes except those relating to sexual abuse, and an assiduously cultivated decline in public confidence in the justice system's ability to distinguish guilt from innocence. New Zealand, distant but no longer isolated, is now fully incorporated in the main current of modern culture.

Of course, New Zealand liberals still bang the old drums, too, blaming crime on poverty and inequality. At first sight, the disproportionate share of New Zealand crime committed by Maoris and migrants from the Pacific Islands seems to come to the rescue. The Maoris and islanders are relatively (though not absolutely) poor, and they suffer discrimination (though not at the hands of the government). Only an eighth of the population, they commit half the crime. Ergo, poverty and discrimination cause crime.

But this won't wash. If the Maoris and islanders had the same crime rate as the whites, total crime in New Zealand would still be only one-third lower than it is today. Such a total would still represent a dramatic rise in the rate over the last few decades. Indeed, the removal of Maori and islander crime from the equation would represent a delay of only a few years in the upward trend.

Moreover, there were almost as many Maoris, proportionately, in the years when the crime rate was very low, and they were poorer then and suffered more open discrimination. Poverty and discrimination thus don't account for the rise in New Zealand's crime rate.

This rise provides no support for liberal theories of crime, no sustenance for the kind of person who proves the strength of his compassion by conceiving of those less law-abiding than himself as automata, mere executors of the dictates of circumstance. It is true, of course, that the decision of criminals to commit their crimes must have antecedents; but they are not to be found in New Zealand's poverty, unemployment, or inequality. Rather, they are to be found in the prudential calculations such criminals make (the likelihood of being caught, imprisoned, and so forth) and also in the characteristics of the culture, particularly the popular culture, from which they construct their thoughts about the world. And this is a culture that not only despises the achievements of past ages, inflaming ignorant egotism by teaching that we need no connection with them, but is profoundly antinomian—of which there could be no better illustration than the name of a rock band, hundreds of posters for whose concerts were plastered everywhere in Wellington and Christchurch during my visit: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals.

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