Friday, July 14, 2006

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Murderers!

In his book A Brief History of Crime, Peter Hitchens examines the failures of England's current Unit Beat system of policing--the progressive successor to the pre-1965 "Bobby on the Beat" community-based system (that we're all so tiresomely familiar with if we've spent any time watching PBS)--and laments the ongoing ideological conflict between "two different and mutually exclusive systems, based on different views of human nature, law and crime." He is, I should say, strongly on the side of a return to the old system, which he characterizes as "preventive" law-enforcement, condemning the UBP system as "Fire Brigade" policing: usually only able to respond to crimes after they've been committed.

Bearing in mind, then, this term "preventive," take a gander at this article in today's Toronto Star. The argument runs as follows: citizens have good reason to doubt the advisability of the Conservative government's move to "impose stiffer sentences for gun crimes" because studies have shown that stiffer sentences do little to deter criminal activity involving guns. Oookaaay. We are also told that Justice Minister Vic Toews has received a memo from the Justice Department confirming as much. Indeed, Criminology professor Anthony Doob (could he be the same, infamous, "Doob the Boob" of my youth? If so: 'Sup Booby!) goes so far as to suggest that stiffer sentencing will have "no effect"!

Now, while I--like the redoubtable Mr. Hitchens--am a firm believer in the efficacy of preventative policing, all this talk about deterrence (in the particular sense it is here being used) is, I can't help noticing, quite beside the point. Any discussion of preventative measures after a crime has been committed begs the question. The proposed legislation is, instead, rather clearly meant to deal with the reality of gun crime that is ongoing in spite of deterrents ... An eminently reasonable and realistic piece of thinking, that takes into account the (no doubt, unfashionable) idea that some people will continue to commit crime even in face of the threat of severe consequences to themselves.

But here, of course, we run-up against that ideological divide Hitchens' mentions. David Warren, in his ongoing mission to have himself irredeemably pigeonholed as the worst kind of conservative reactionary, puts the matter, rather starkly, thus:
... [T]he most obvious contemporary way to distinguish between a “liberal” and a “conservative” is in their views on any passing spectacle of crime and punishment. The “liberal” instinctively identifies with the criminal, the “conservative” instinctively identifies with the victim. The liberal instinctively accuses the conservative of lacking compassion, or of wanting vengeance against the criminal, with whom the liberal has identified. The conservative instinctively remembers that the criminal showed no compassion to the victim with whom he identified.
The sort of prevention that comes as a consequence of putting violent criminals of the gun-toting type in jail for no less than 5 years doesn't, it would appear, even occur to these "liberal" detractors of the proposed legislation. They can't shake the (unquestionably valid--but, it goes without saying, hardly determining) feeling that they have failed Canada's violent criminals, and that said criminals should not then be made to pay the price for failures not their own ... A sophisticated piece of reasoning and everything, but hardly practical. The threat of 5 years in jail for using a gun during a crime may not deter your average criminal from doing so, but it certainly will stop him (for a minimum of 5 years anyway) from doing it again. The idea that there's no qualitative difference between this and the current minimum of 1 year for the same crime is just plain ridiculous. When we're talking about lives being cut short by bullets, quantity and quality tend to blur together: the difference is 4 years.

The sorts of philosophical abstraction (with regard to prevention) that Mr. Warren's "liberal" is here indulging, suffers the same illogic that the "Liberals" employed when advocating the banning of handguns (i.e. the second you take a pistol out of a man's hands you also somehow remove the concurrent psychological reality of a willingness to commit grave bodily harm or murder). I mean, it's not as if we don't already have quite severe laws to deal with criminals of this bent. The problem is: such is the given criminal's state of mind that even the threat of long-term imprisonment is not enough to stop him. In dealing with this particular type, then, we are well-beyond the prevention phase ... And I guess it is for this rather obvious reason that the word itself (i.e. prevention, or any permutation thereof), never actually appears in the proposal for the bill.

Where prevention fails (and, darlings, it always will to some extent): detention! Happy Bastille Day!