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February 21, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple asks, can you guess which newspaper recently called for "swift, severe and exemplary" punishment for offenders?

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

A British newspaper recently called for the "swift, severe, and exemplary" punishment of a set of offenders. Theodore Dalrymple argues the paper was right to do so - and wishes only they would do so more often. Dr Dalrymple fears this hope is in vain.

I was struck by some words in a newspaper editorial on Monday, 13th February. These words were:

Punishment of all those responsible must be swift, severe and exemplary.
Surely the Daily Telegraph, you must think, with regard to the crimes committed by the feral young men who pullulate in British streets dressed in our new national costume, which is to say tracksuit, trainers and baseball cap.

No, the words come from The Guardian leader about the British soldiers in Iraq who were filmed while beating some young Iraqi men, to the appallingly sadistic commentary of (presumably) one of their number.

One might argue about whether the violence inflicted was quite as gratuitous as the previous sentence in the editorial suggested:

Even for those who believe that UK forces in Basra are helping bring forth something better than Ba'athist tyranny - and can still convince themselves that winning hearts and minds really means something - such gratuitous violence is as shameful as it is unacceptable.
It appears that the soldiers had previously been trying to quell a disturbance and the beaten youths were participating in that disturbance. One might also question whether the outrage expressed in the Middle East is proportionate to the offence, since the whole region is hardly known for its observation of the rule of law, and far worse things occur there every day of every year of every century. The fact remains that the behaviour of the troops involved was brutal and stupid and thoroughly disgraceful (they enjoyed it, of course). I do not disagree with The Guardian's suggested remedy.

But in a way it is odd that The Guardian should have suggested it. Surely, to be consistent with its general philosophy, it should have pointed out that the soldiers probably came from an underprivileged background, and if they had not joined up, they would probably have been unemployed, and therefore had no real choice in the matter; and that they emerged from a culture in which violence was normal, everyday and expected, and that therefore they could not really be held responsible for what they did. Their violence, of course, came from poor housing conditions.

Indeed, if you wanted to prevent British soldiers from being brutal, you would have to deal with the underlying or fundamental causes of brutality and not merely the symptoms of it. This would entail a reduction in youth unemployment among the unskilled working class, for example by subsidising one make-work scheme or another, so that such youths did not "have" to join the army (to quote Polly Toynbee with regard to the burglaries committed by heroin addicts who "have" to break into houses to maintain their habit); and of course by improving education by - for example - giving the little chaps civics classes to teach them that beating people is wrong. Nor should the redeeming features of ping-pong be forgotten: British youth needs more community centres built of concrete, complete with ping-pong tables, in which drug-dealers may safely deal, if it is ever to cease being a byword for crudity and brutality.

The Guardian's sudden conversion to the virtues of severe punishment will no doubt be welcome to some. After all, it has long denied that severe punishment is the answer to rising crime. One of the reasons for this is that severe punishment is not always exemplary and can even be entertaining as well as enjoyable and profitable for those who inflict it: the Bloody Code, for example, did not usher in an age of obedience to the law, and the public executions were more entertainments than calls to virtue.

Still, I doubt that The Guardian was thinking of public execution when it called for swift, severe and exemplary punishment for the wayward soldiers. It probably had a period of imprisonment followed by dishonourable discharge from the army in mind for them. That should be sufficient to deter other soldiers from behaving in like fashion.

But is the psychology of serving soldiers so very different from that of serving criminals, in the sense that the former can be deterred from committing offences by the prospect of severe punishment while criminals cannot be so deterred? This would indeed be a difference worthy of further investigation.

We are frequently told by people of Guardian-sensibility that prison does not work, though even the most liberal person (in the American sense) usually reserves a place in his heart for a type of crime that particularly appals him and that he believes ought to be ferociously punished.

The inefficacy of imprisonment is usually demonstrated by high rates of recidivism among prisoners, as though imprisonment were supposed merely to be a form of psychotherapy, though even the most lenient of liberals do not claim that a recidivist burglar, for example, is able to continue his criminal depredations while he is incarcerated. From this, however, it is never concluded that prison sentences are not long enough to work as well as they might; besides, "Prison does not work" is a better sound-bite, as well as more gratifying to a liberal's consciousness of his own compassion, than "Prison does not work as well as it would if sentences were much longer". What people who say that prison does not work do not mean is that there would be less crime overall in society as a whole if there were no prisons at all.

The Guardian's seeming conversion to the justice and efficacy of punishment in the case of the errant soldiers is actually a manifestation of the fundamental division that the liberal mind makes, between those who are responsible for their actions and those who are not.

Ordinary criminals are not responsible for their actions, and cannot therefore be either justly or efficaciously punished, because they are of the people; while soldiers, even if they emerge from a similar social background to that of criminals, can be held responsible, because they are part of a structure of authority to which it is the true liberal's vocation to oppose himself, by existential choice as it were. His is ultimately a four-legs-good, two- legs-bad view of the world.

Authority being a permanent and inescapable feature of society, it is right and indeed supremely important that it should not escape censure. But neither should we imagine that all who are not in authority are ex officio blameless or at least excusable because they belong to a different species from those in authority.

I am not in favour of a reflex, unthinking and indiscriminate severity, though severity may often be called for, or for that matter in favour of a reflex, unthinking and indiscriminate leniency, though leniency may often be called for. In this instance, I think The Guardian's call for severity is right; but I hope that liberals will take the opportunity to reflect upon their previous attitude to criminality in general.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor.


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"I hope that liberals will take the opportunity to reflect upon their previous attitude to criminality in general."

Pigs might fly.

Notice also that this fundamental inconsistency in "liberal" beliefs about the psychology of people's actions can extend to an _ethnos_, a whole people. A favoured people acts as it does owing to forces acting upon it, like a ball on a billiard table. However, a disfavoured people is to blame for its actions, which it appears, by contrast, to have chosen.

For Canon Paul Ostreicher, Palestinian terrorists are "driven to violence" while Jews attempting to defend themselves from this violence are described in virulently moralistic language as a "cruel occupying power".

See this article in the _Guardian_ (where else?):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1713544,00.html

And see also Melanie Phillips response to the tissue of mendacities from which it is made up:

http://www.melaniephillips.com/diary/archives/001601.html

Posted by: Damian at February 21, 2006 01:36 PM
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Why does that scoundrel Antony Daniels keep coming out with accurate, savage, and profound attacks on the Guardian faster than I can. He must take the Guardian which gives him an unfair advantage. I see their stuff on websites a week later. At least the marginal revenue they get from me is zero.
Mbwana Tuesday

Posted by: Christie Davies at February 21, 2006 02:20 PM
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As usual Dr Dalrymple hits the nail on the head.

Posted by: Peter L at February 21, 2006 11:00 PM
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Those sympathetic to The Guardian's stance in general, tend to divide the world into two groups, roughly along Marxist lines. There are those who make up the "oppressive" group. This will usually include the armed forces, the police, teachers, parents, doctors, big business, the middle-aged, the wealthy, Christians, and to a significant extent, men. Oh, and all Americans of course. All those contained herein are perfectly legitimate targets of attack. The Government, or rather the state is curiously exempted I might add. On the other hand, there is a sacrosanct composite of society that for which an incredibly diverse range of excuses is readily available. This group comprises the criminal underclass (a bit of burglary never hurt anyone), drug addicts (heroin chooses them rather than the other way round) women (violent boyfriends choose them rather than the other way round), those of non-Christian faiths (the term infidel is nothing to worry about of course), and so on. You may detect a hint of sarcasm in the foregoing. Needless to say, Polly Toynbee and co need to get out a little bit more. Their self-serving generosity of spirit leads to the denial of obvious truths. Instead of for example admitting that the probation service is an artful (?) con trick, we get the standard line that the system needs more money. No it doesn't. It shouldn't exist in the first place. Therefore what money we do spend on it is waste outright. What the Guardian fails to understand is that those of us on the right, who are thoroughly wedded to an empiricist outlook (this is not all of us, but a good many), are not over the moon at the fact that, to continue the example, the probation service (from the Latin probrare - to test), has failed, and is in fact doomed to fail (by ignoring what we realistically know about human nature). How I wish that community service orders were adhered to, that fines were paid, that offenders magically and assuredly were reformed! How could I not wish for these outcomes? But that is not the case. At least some of us are prepared to admit this. In this way I think that conservatives have the same ideals as liberals, the difference being that conservatives have a much more accurate insight into how and why these ideals break down in the face of reality.

Posted by: Richard Nalty at December 12, 2009 12:06 PM
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