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“The Knife Went In”

from the magazine

“The Knife Went In”

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. Autumn 1994
Public safety

It is a
mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free.
On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of
it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory)
security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less
enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of
untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone
else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged
in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable
stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced
by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse
of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of
British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I
am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own
efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous
dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.”
Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their
lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the
dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others,
especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a
doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by
prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are
supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the
marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his
arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I
told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively
short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance
dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for
violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he
must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the
victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he
hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to
circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers
(two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same
expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they
said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated
victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes,
was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives
themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

It might be objected by psychologists, of course, that the deeds of these
men were so heinous that it was a natural and perhaps even necessary psychic
defense for them to ascribe the deaths of their victims to forces beyond
their control: too swift an acknowledgment of responsibility would result in
a total collapse of their morale and, possibly, in suicide. But the evasion
in their own minds of the responsibility for their deeds was in no way
different from that exhibited by lesser criminals: offenders against property
or, more accurately, against the owners of property.

A few examples will suffice. A prisoner, recently convicted for the umpteenth
time, came to me to complain that he had been depressed ever since his
trouble came on him again. And what, I asked, was this trouble which came on
him periodically? It was breaking and entering churches, stealing their
valuables, and burning them down to destroy the evidence.

And why churches? Was it that he had been dragged as a child to tedious
services by hypocritical parents and wished to be revenged upon religion,
perhaps? Not at all; it was because in general churches were poorly secured,
easy to break into, and contained valuable objects in silver.

Oddly enough, he did not deduce from this pragmatic, reasonable, and
honest explanation of his choice of ecclesiastical burglary as a career that
he was himself responsible for the trouble which mysteriously overtook him
every time he was released from prison: he blamed the church authorities for
the laxness of their security, which first caused and then reinforced his
compulsion to steal from them. Echoing the police, who increasingly blame
theft on the owners of property—for failing to take the proper precautions
against its misappropriation—rather than on those who actually carry out the
theft, the ecclesiastical burglar said that the church authorities should
have known of his proclivities and taken the necessary measures to prevent
him from acting upon them.

Another burglar demanded to know from me why he repeatedly broke into
houses and stole VCRs. He asked the question aggressively, as if “the system”
had so far let him down in not supplying him with the answer; as if it were
my duty as a doctor to provide him with the buried psychological secret
which, once revealed, would in and of itself lead him unfailingly on the path
of virtue. Until then, he would continue to break into houses and steal VCRs
(when at liberty to do so), and the blame would be mine.

When I refused to examine his past, he exclaimed, “But something must make
me do it!”
“How about greed, laziness, and a thirst for excitement?” I suggested.
“What about my childhood?” he asked.
“Nothing to do with it,” I replied firmly.

He looked at me as if I had assaulted him. Actually, I thought the matter
more complex than I was admitting, but I did not want him to misunderstand my
main message: that he was the author of his own deeds.

Another prisoner claimed to be under so strong a compulsion to steal cars
that it was irresistible—an addiction, he called it. He stole up to forty
vehicles a week, but nevertheless considered himself a fundamentally good
person because he was never violent towards anyone, and all the vehicles he
stole were insured, and therefore the owners would lose nothing. But
regardless of any financial incentive to do so, he contended, he stole cars
for the excitement of it: if prevented for a few days from indulging in this activity,
he became restless, depressed, and anxious. It was a true addiction, he
repeated at frequent intervals, in case I should have forgotten in the

Now the generally prevalent conception of an addiction is of an illness,
characterized by an irresistible urge (mediated neurochemically and possibly
hereditary in nature) to consume a drug or other substance, or to behave in a
repetitively self-destructive or antisocial way. An addict can’t help
himself, and because his behavior is a manifestation of illness, it has no
more moral content than the weather.

So in effect what my car thief was telling me was that his compulsive
car-stealing was not merely not his fault, but that the responsibility for
stopping him from behaving thus was mine, since I was the doctor treating
him. And until such time as the medical profession found the behavioral
equivalent of an antibiotic in the treatment of pneumonia, he could continue
to cause untold misery and inconvenience to the owners of cars and yet
consider himself fundamentally a decent person.

That criminals often shift the locus of responsibility for their acts
elsewhere is illustrated by some of the expressions they use most frequently
in their consultations with me. Describing, for example, their habitual loss
of temper, which leads them to assault whomever displeases them sufficiently,
they say, “My head goes,” or “My head just went.”

What exactly do they mean by this? They mean that they consider themselves
to suffer from a form of epilepsy or other cerebral pathology whose only
manifestation is involuntary rage, of which it is the doctor’s duty to cure
them. Quite often they put me on warning that unless I find the cure for
their behavior, or at least prescribe the drugs they demand, they are going
to kill or maim someone. The responsibility when they do so will be mine, not
theirs, for I knew what they were going to do, yet failed to prevent it. So
their putative illness has not only explained and, therefore, absolved them
from past misconduct, but it has exonerated them in advance from all future

Moreover, by warning me of their intention to carry out further assaults,
they have set themselves up to be victims rather than perpetrators. They told
the authorities (me) what they were going to do, and yet the authorities (I,
again) did nothing; and so when they return to prison after committing a
further horrible crime, they will feel aggrieved that “the system,”
represented by me, has once again let them down.

But were I to take the opposite tack and suggest preventive detention
until such time as they could control their temper, they would be outraged at
the injustice of it. What about habeas corpus? What about innocence until
guilt is proven? And they deduce nothing from the fact that they can usually
control their tempers in the presence of a sufficiently opposing force.

Violent criminals often use an expression auxiliary to “My head went” when
explaining their deeds: “It wasn’t me.” Here is the psychobabble of the
slums, the doctrine of the “Real Me” as refracted through the lens of urban
degradation. The Real Me has nothing to do with the phenomenal me, the me
that snatches old ladies’ bags, breaks into other people’s houses, beats up
my wife and children, or repeatedly drinks too much and gets involved in
brawls. No, the Real Me is an immaculate conception, untouched by human
conduct: it is that unassailable core of virtue that enables me to retain my
self-respect whatever I do. What I am is not at all determined by what I do;
and insofar as what I do has any moral significance at all, it is up to
others to ensure that the phenomenal me acts in accordance with the Real Me.

Hence one further expression frequently used by prisoners: “My head needs
sorting out.” The visual image they have of their minds, I suspect, is of a
child’s box of bricks, piled higgledy-piggledy, which the doctor, rummaging
around in the skull, has the capacity and the duty to put into perfect order,
ensuring that henceforth all conduct will automatically be honest,
law-abiding, and economically advantageous. Until this sorting out is done,
constructive suggestions—learn a skill, enroll in a correspondence course—are
met with the refrain, “I will—once my head’s sorted out.”

At the very heart of all this passivity and refusal of responsibility is a
deep dishonesty—what Sartre would have called bad faith. For however
vehemently criminals try to blame others, and whatever appearance of
sincerity they manage to convey while they do so, they know at least some of
the time that what they say is untrue.

That’s clear in the habit drug addicts often have of altering their
language according to their interlocutors. To doctors, social workers, and
probation officers—to all who might prove useful to them either in a
prescribing or a testimonial capacity—they emphasize their overwhelming and
overpowering craving for a drug, the intolerability of the withdrawal effects
from it, the deleterious effects it has upon their character, judgment, and
behavior. Among themselves, though, their language is quite different,
optimistic rather than abject: it is about where you can obtain the
best-quality drug, where it is cheapest, and how to heighten its effects.

I suspect (though I cannot prove, except by anecdote) that it is the same
among prisoners. It is hardly a new observation that prisons are the
universities of crime. Yet prisoners invariably describe to doctors and
psychologists their difficult upbringings (which they bring out for the
occasion almost like heirlooms), their violent or absent fathers, their
poverty and all the difficulties and disadvantages to which urban flesh is
heir. Among themselves, though, what must be the discourse, as they establish
contacts, learn new techniques—and deride the poor fools who earn an honest
living but never grow rich?

That their outlook is dishonest and self-serving is apparent in their
attitude to those whom they believe to have done them wrong. For example,
they do not say of the policemen who they allege (often plausibly) have
beaten them up, “Poor cops! They were brought up in authoritarian homes and
now project the anger that is really directed at their bullying fathers onto
me. They need counseling. They need their heads sorted out.” On the contrary,
they say, with force and explosive emotion, “The bastards!” They assume that
the police act out of free, if malevolent, will.

The prisoner’s public presentation of himself often takes on a curious
resemblance to the portrayal of him by liberals. “You want me to be a victim
of circumstance?” he seems to say. “All right, I’ll be a victim for you.”
With repetition of his story, he comes to believe it, at least some of the
time and with part of his mind. Denial of guilt—both juridical and moral—thus
becomes possible in the presence of the most minute memory of the
circumstances of the crime.

Man has always had a capacity for deceit of others and for self-deception,
of course. It was Nietzsche who famously observed that pride and self-regard
have no difficulty in overcoming memory; and every psychic defense mechanism
known to the modem psychologist makes its appearance somewhere in
Shakespeare. Yet one’s impression nonetheless is that the ease with which
people discard responsibility for what they have done—their intellectual and
emotional dishonesty about their own actions—has increased greatly in the
last few decades.

Why should this occur just when, objectively speaking, freedom and
opportunity for the individual have never been greater?

In the first place, there is now a much enlarged constituency for liberal
views: the legions of helpers and carers, social workers and therapists,
whose incomes and careers depend crucially on the supposed incapacity of
large numbers of people to fend for themselves or behave reasonably. Without
the supposed powerlessness of drug addicts, burglars, and others in the face
of their own undesirable inclinations, there would be nothing for the
professional redeemers to do. They have a vested interest in psychopathology,
and their entire therapeutic world view of the patient as the passive,
helpless victim of illness legitimizes the very behavior from which they are
to redeem him. Indeed, the tangible advantages to the wrongdoer of appearing
helpless are now so great that he needs but little encouragement to do so.

In the second place, there has been a widespread dissemination of
psychotherapeutic concepts, in however garbled or misinterpreted a form.
These concepts have become the currency even of the uneducated. Thus the idea
has become entrenched that if one does not know or understand the unconscious
motives for one’s acts, one is not truly responsible for them. This, of
course, applies only to those acts which someone regards as undesirable: no one
puzzles over his own meritoriousness. But since there is no single ultimate
explanation of anything, one can always claim ignorance of one’s own motives.
Here is a perpetual getout.

Third, there has been a widespread acceptance of sociological determinism,
especially by the guilt-laden middle classes. Statistical association has
been taken indiscriminately as proving causation: thus, if criminal behavior
is more common among the poorer classes, it must be poverty that causes

Nobody, of course, experiences himself as sociologically
determined—certainly not the sociologist. And few of the liberals who espouse
such a viewpoint recognize its profoundly dehumanizing consequences. If
poverty is the cause of crime, burglars do not decide to break into houses
any more than amoebae decide to move a pseudopod towards a particle of food.
They are automata—and presumably should be treated as such.

Here the subliminal influence of Marxist philosophy surfaces: the notion
that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on
the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. If this
were so, men would still live in caves; but it has just enough plausibility
to shake the confidence of the middle classes that crime is a moral problem,
not just a problem of morale.

Into this rich brew of uncertainty and equivocation, social historians are
inclined to add their dash of seasoning, pointing out that the middle classes
saw crime as a moral problem even in the eighteenth century, when for many
malefactors it really was quite another thing, since sometimes the only way
for them to obtain food was to steal it. To say this, of course, is to
overlook the fundamental change in life chances that has occurred since then.
In Georgian London, for example, the life expectancy at birth was about 25
years, whereas it is now 75. At the height of the Victorian era, the life
expectancy of the Royal Family was 50 percent lower than that of the very
poorest section of the population today. Surely to cling to explanations that
might once have held some force but are no longer plausible is, in the most
literal sense, reactionary.

The very form of the explanation offered by liberals for modern crime—from
social conditions direct to behavior, without passing through the human
mind—offers those who commit crime an excuse in advance, an excuse which with
part of their minds they know to be false but which is nonetheless useful and
convenient to them in dealing with officialdom.

Finally, consider the effect that the mass media’s constant rehearsal of
injustices has upon the population. People come to believe that, far from
being extremely fortunate by the standards of all previously existing
populations, we actually live in the worst of times and under the most unjust
of dispensations. Every wrongful conviction, every instance of police
malfeasance, is so publicized that even professional criminals, even those
who have performed appalling deeds, feel on a priori grounds they too must
have been unjustly, or at least hypocritically, dealt with.

And the widespread notion that material inequality is in itself a sign of
institutionalized injustice also helps foster crime. If property is theft,
then theft is a form of just retribution. This leads to the development of
that most curious phenomenon, the ethical thief: the thief who prides himself
on stealing only from those who in his estimation can stand the loss. Thus I
have had many burglars tell me in a glow of self-satisfaction that they would
not steal from the old, from children, or the poor, because that would be

“In fact, you’d steal only from people like me,” I say to them. (A house
opposite mine has been burgled four times in two years, incidentally.)

They agree; and strangely enough they expect my approbation of their
restrained feloniousness. That’s how far things have gone.

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