It’s natural, when you’re a victim of crime, to wish horrible things on the people who did it. And I suppose we’ve been a collective victim of crime this week, seeing our country burn, shops looted, people attacked and rules broken.
It’s a crime against all of us, what’s happened. And those of us who’ve suffered at the hands of thieves, or attackers, or burglars, or whatever, will know the feeling: you wish for instance vengeance against the lowlifes who’ve done this; you want to see them suffer, and pay for what they’ve done. You want to crack their skulls and kick them in the face. You want to give them pain. It’s a normal and understandable response.
The impact that crimes have on us, making us feel these horrible thoughts, is why people deserve to be punished for what they’ve done. But then, maybe a while later, the anger and the fear subsides, and you realise that, perhaps, it’s probably best if the people who broke your window or nicked your telly weren’t hung, drawn and quartered.
(It’s no use telling me, by the way, that I’d think differently if I’d been a victim of crime, because I have been many times in the past, and I’m afraid to tell you that it hasn’t turned me into a rabid watercannon-wielding Charles Bronson wannabe. If anything, it’s made me more liberal about how to try and think about these things. Sorry if that offends you.)
It’s right to punish those who’ve committed these crimes. But I wonder whether it’s right to punish them more severely than the people who commit this kind of crime week in, week out.
There’s a whole level of crime that we hardly get to hear about because it doesn’t appear on the news, and probably doesn’t even appear in the local rag either — the police, concerned about “fear of crime”, don’t tell journalists about every single offence that takes place. Unless you’ve got someone in magistrates’ courts 24/7, as we’ve seen this week, you won’t find out about the low-level crimes and the kind of people who commit them.
But we are talking about it this week. A petition calling on rioters to “loose” their benefits has topped 100,000; a council says it is going to evict a parent for the alleged crimes of their child. We want revenge, it seems. It’s completely understandable, while the anger is still raw. But what message does it send if we are giving disproportionate punishments to people who took part in last week’s riots?
That ordinary crime doesn’t count, perhaps, unless it’s captured on the HD Skycopter or part of a big moral outrage, perhaps. You can chuck a broken bottle at someone, break a window or push a pint glass into someone’s face at any other time and you might get a little ticking off or a community sentence, but do a bit of opportunistic nicking in a time of anarchy and you’ll be sent away for a good few weeks.
Well, that’s fine, if that’s the message we want to send, I suppose. But what about those people who happened to be victims of crime in the wrong week? Do we just pat them on the head and tell them that, sorry, you just weren’t the right time of victim, your crime didn’t happen to take place during the riots?
I just wonder how people feel who were on the receiving end of violence and assaults, and who have seen their attackers walk free from court, and how they feel now about seeing people jailed for stealing a bottle of water instead. Sorry, your crime wasn’t important. You being glassed, or beaten up, wasn’t important enough, because it didn’t happen during a riot.
In this week’s riot panic, it’s all been about the perpetrators. Maybe that’s understandable, but maybe we should give more thought to the victims — not just of these crimes, but the kind of crimes that happen week in, week out.
And whether we really are sending out the right message.