Entry from August 15, 2011

The headline news in the London Daily Telegraph over the weekend read: “Young thugs ‘should fear the police’ says David Cameron’s new crime adviser.” Gosh, ya think? Who is this “new crime adviser” with a gift for stating the obvious? He turns out to be none other than our own Bill Bratton, former head of the Boston, New York and Los Angeles police forces, who has been spoken of as a candidate for the vacant position of head of the London Metropolitan Police.

Speaking in New York, Mr Bratton, 63, said police forces should be more assertive in their dealings with offenders, leaving no doubt that crime would always meet a firm response. “You want the criminal element to fear them, fear their ability to interrupt their own ability to carry out criminal behaviour, and arrest and prosecute and incarcerate them,” he said. “In my experience, the younger criminal element don’t fear the police and have been emboldened to challenge the police and effectively take them on.” Some critics believe that British forces have been cowed by threats of legal action and a lack of political support for robust policing. Mr Bratton said officers should leave no doubt that they were ready and willing to use force when required. “What needs to be understood is that police are empowered to do certain things — to stop, to talk, to frisk on certain occasions, to arrest if necessary, to use force,” he said.

Not exactly controversial stuff, you might think. But in Britain, it appears, it is — and for the same reason I mentioned in my last post about discipline in schools, namely the fear of fear. On that occasion I argued, as I take Mr Bratton to be arguing here, that fear — also known as “respect” — is the foundation of good discipline. This kind of healthy fear is not the same as abject terror nor even, I would argue, the sort of insecurity we all feel before arbitrary fate, since the fear I mean, if properly engendered, carries with it a certain confidence that good behavior has nothing to fear. But your modern progressive mind is absolutist about fear. Indeed, the progressive project often seems to me to start from the assumption that it is the function of government, as of morality and decency, to abolish fear.

As the abolition of fear is not possible, however, the practical consequence of their endeavors is generally unfortunate — for example, to transfer the criminal’s fear of detection and punishment to the “cowed” police for being too “robust” (in the formulation of the “critics” above) for detecting and punishing him. The initial inaction of the British police in acting against the rioters could have had no other cause. I wonder how many of them would agree with Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who criticized Mr Bratton’s proposed remedies for civil violence, telling The Independent on Sunday that “If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are so fundamentally different from here. What I suggested to the Home Secretary is a more sensible approach, maybe to look across far wider styles of policing; and, more usefully, at European styles — they, like us, are bound by the European Convention. My sense is, when we”ve done that, we will find the British model is probably the top.”

There speaks a man with an idea, and that idea is that “violence” is a cause rather than an effect. In other words, he shares the progressive confidence that violence comes from some precedent, provoking violence and, therefore, that if you prevent the police from responding to violent provocation with violence of their own, the violent ones will be encouraged by their example to cease being violent themselves. It’s a variation on the old moral equivalence argument and has been most often heard in recent years in connection with “the cycle of violence” in international relations, especially in the Middle East. I think it’s utter nonsense and am encouraged to find in Mr Bratton’s successes here an indication that a sufficient number of my fellow Americans agree with me to have kept him in business so successfully and for so long. On the other hand, as a melancholy student of transatlantic influences, which have been uniformly bad in both directions for half a century or more, I wonder if it is the case that in Britain even the police have adopted the progressive view, can it be long before they do the same here?

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