There's Just Us


If I were fortune (which I'm not)
B should enjoy A's happy lot
And A should die in misery
That is, assuming I am B--
       The Mikado


In the olden days, it was simple. A 'criminal' was a person who had committed a crime. If you committed a crime, you incurred a certain punishment: a fine of 50, say, or seven years in Australia. The judge inflicted the punishment on the criminal, and everyone was happy. In theory, the punishment was meant to make potential criminals think twice before they committed crimes, but in practice ordinary decent villains regarded 'time inside' as an occupational hazard. You can see the same thinking at work today in the minds of owners of large red motorcars. Provided you are prepared to pay the fine, you are free to park wherever you want and drive as quickly as you choose. The fine reimburses the infringement, and no-one thinks any the less of you. Indeed, believers in this theory talk about 'paying your debt to society.'

The 'debt' that has to be repaid is based only on the seriousness of the crime. We don't pass judgement on what sort of a person you are, only on the bad thing which you have done. If I hang you, it doesn't imply that I think you are a monster; or even that I think you are not a gentleman: it simply implies that I think you have poisoned your wife, which, let's face it, could happen to anyone. And since you are a gentleman too you undoubtedly accept that life must pay for life, and simply grit you teeth, take your medicine like a man, and say no more about it. No ill feelings on either side.

Detective stories would be impossible if we thought that murderers were uniquely evil people. Any one of a group of ordinary people, in this room, had a motive, and an opportunity: any one of us might be the murderer. We frequently come out of a murder mystery understanding why the criminal did what he did; but this does not alter the fact that we think he should be hanged. People like you and me strangle our wives, where only working class oiks and gangsters rob banks. That is precisely why murder has to be punished so very severely. There has to be a terrifyingly awful deterrent to make us think twice the next time the old girl burns the fish fingers.

In recent times, this view of crime and punishment has gone out of fashion. The idea of 'paying a debt' seems uncomfortably close to retribution and revenge which are fuelled by the same anger and hatred which motivate murders in the first place. And, of course, it was patently obvious that it didn't show even the vaguest tendency to stop crimes being committed. So we stopped hanging people, stopped whipping them, stopped chopping bits off them and even started to say that prisons should be reasonably humane places.

Unfortunately, this change of thinking did not mean that the desire to hurt bad people went away. It simply meant that we had to be much more creative about explaining our reasons for doing it.

The first such explanation is known as the Myra theory. This takes its name from the 1972 Doctor Who story entitled 'Invasion of the Myra.' The Myra were a strange alien life form from the planet Pluto, bent on wiping out the human race. They had green skins and peroxide hair and always kept themselves to themselves. Until overcome by the Doctor and the Brigadier, they ran a reign of terror kidnapping world leaders and burying them under the patio; photographing state secrets and distributing them on the internet and collecting hand ray-guns.

They were eventually defeated when the Doctor constructed a machine which looked oddly like a hair drier with egg-boxes glued to the outside. Once the machine had been activated, it became relatively easy to spot the Myra: you only had to look in their eyes. They were rounded up into their spaceship and sent back where they came from. But subscribers to the Myra theory of crime and punishment believe that some of these invaders still hide in darkened corners of the earth.

When you catch a Myra, it has to be put down, or at the very least isolated for the rest of its life. There can be no question of curing, rehabilitating, re-educating or even punishing it. They are evil since the day they were born, fiends in human form. The purpose of the criminal justice system is to seek, locate and exterminate them.

The Myra theory goes some way to explaining the otherwise un-intelligible behaviour of the British public during the Louise Woodward trial. (I know that was nearly three weeks ago, and there is something retro, almost quaint, about referring to it, but bear with me.) Recall that, according to the old Debt To Society theory, a child-murderer is a person who murders a child. It follows that one can be a child-murderer at one time in one's life but not at another; that one can become a child-murderer through anger, negligence, stupidity, ill temper or temporary madness. But if you accept the new theory, then anyone who kills a baby is (by definition) an evil Myra. It follows that anyone who is not a Myra cannot be a killer. So it is the job of the prosecution, not to establish guilt in the old-fashioned sense, but to prove that the accused is an alien life-form. This was why it was so important for the grieving parents to say that she did not look like a monster, or a child abuser—but was, nevertheless, an alien. Dashed clever, these Martians. Many of the public, watching TV reports of the trial, found it hard to believe that the accused was an alien, and her family, who had grown up with her, knew that she wasn't. Ergo, she was utterly and completely utterly and completely never laid hands on him never had a bad thought in my life innocent. So within five minutes, everyone has worked themselves up into an enormous diana and started wearing yellow ribbons and slagging off the Americans.

However, there are signs that the public's faith in the Myra theory is diminishing. Few people seriously believe that we are being invaded by aliens. Unfortunately for Richard Dawkins, the theory is not being replaced by hard-nosed rationalism, but by an even more fanciful theory involving ghosts, ritual purification and blood sacrifice. It reduces the criminal to a third party at his trial. It is being put forward in the name of compassion by the most sensible commentators. It can be summed up by the two dangerous words: 'justice for...'

According to the 'Justice For' theory, a crime is not primarily a breach of the law, but an injury committed against an individual. The purpose of the court is to perform a necromantic spell whereby that injury is miraculously undone. For the spell to work, another person must be made to suffer. The more the sacrificial victim suffers, the stronger the ju-ju. If X murders Y, and we make X suffer, then there has been 'Justice for Y.' A theory is gaining ground that Ys right to justice overrides Xs, even if X is innocent. If X is released from gaol on the grounds that he didn't do it, believers in this theory will say 'There has been justice for X—but what justice has there been for Y?' Restless spirits demand blood-payment, but they are not over-fussy about whose blood it is.

Some shamans believe that the primary victim in a murder case is the corpse. They believe that the corpse remains fully conscious, and that its suffering can be eased if its killers (or someone else: police officers and social workers are popular) can be reduced to a corpse-like state. Their holy books contain curses which say things like 'My husband is rotting in the earth, so his killer should rot in jail?'; 'They say the killer has the right to a trial, but what rights does my son have, lying in the cold earth?'; 'Why should the killer receive visits from his parents; when I cannot visit my parents, whom he killed?'

Other shamans believe that the blood-payment is made, not to the dead corpse but to his living relatives. On this view, if the criminal's suffering in gaol can be made equal to the families suffering through grief, this grief will be alleviated and purged. They will be able to 'come to terms with' and 'move on from' their suffering.

But of course, grief is, quite simply, the most terrible thing there is. It is a demon which, having once tasted blood, will never be satiated. When it has someone in its grip, it makes them do terrible things. Its acolytes go to spirit mediums, and come away swearing that the phrase 'Didn't we have a lovely time on your fifth birthday,' was 'Something which only Granny could possibly have known.' It causes them to hang around municipal cemeteries, talking to grave stones and reading love poetry to rose bushes. In extreme cases, it makes them erect Elenor crosses or the Taj Mahal. Once upon a time, a child put a single red rose outside the palace where a beautiful princess had died. Once the demon grief had tasted the rose, it demanded more and more. Roses piled up, burying the palace, the road outside, the city—and in the end, the whole kingdom was destroyed, buried in an avalanche of rose petals. And at the end of it all, the princess was still dead and the little girl was still crying.

So; I stand up in court, and I scream and cry and I demand, hysterically, that the killer of my wife be sent to gaol for life. And—since the judge believes in 'Justice For', he is sent away. But I complain that prisons are like holiday camps and he should damn well have been executed. And, because you want to assuage my suffering in every way possible, you change the law and condemn the murderer to death. But of course, because my love for my wife was so great, that is still not enough for me, and I demand the right to witness the execution for myself. So you change the law again; to permit me do to this. I understand that in primitive countries and some parts of America, this really happens. Whole families drive to prisons, and sit in cinema-style seats to watch the spectacle of an execution. And does this satisfy me? Or do I say that hanging or lethal injection is too easy a way out, and the criminal should be tortured? And so the judge allows me to specify the form of torture which should be carried out on 'my' criminal. And guess what? At the end of the day my wife is still dead.

Whenever there has been a really nasty crime, the TV news always shows pictures of the accused being taken from the police cells to the magistrates court. There is always a large crowd of onlookers, and a large crowd of policemen. The policemen are not there to protect the public from the dangerous criminal, but to prevent the dangerous criminal from the public. Pillars of the community, they are. Some of them live next door to you. Yet, they get up, early in the morning, shave, dress their kids, pop them in the pushchair, and go and wait outside the court. And, when the police van comes past, they scream and shout. 'Bastard! String em up! Lop of their goolies!' The police barrier collapses (police barriers are specially made to collapse at dramatic moments) and they surge towards the van. The police form a human chain to hold them back. They abuse the police. 'Why are you protecting that bastard? Don't you have kids yourself?' If the police were not there, there is no doubt that these people would happily tear the criminal—who may yet be acquitted—to pieces.

Whether we believe in paying your debt to society, in locking up evil aliens, or in providing justice for the victim, then it is the mob of respectable citizens who win the day. One way or another, the criminal gets ripped to pieces. But what else can we do? The desire to hurt people may be rather disreputable, but if we made prisons as quaint and redundant as the stocks and the cat'o'nine tails, society would be over-run with crime.

Unlike now.