The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that's excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw,
And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
-The Lord Chancellor, Iolanthe
It is a curious fact that the Roman Republic never had a police force. There was no disinterested force keeping the peace on Rome’s streets, even though political disputes led to outright violence, murder and, to some extent, outright war between Rome and the other allied cities of Italy. Indeed, the lead up to both Sulla and Caesar’s attacks on Rome were marred with intensive political violence and a marked disregard for the rule of law.
I believe, to some extent, that the failure to have a dedicated police service that upheld the peace, without fear or favour, played a large role in the collapse of the Roman Republic and the eventual rise of Emperor Augustus. Political disputes led to outright violence – the killing of Clodius by Milo, for example – while lawsuits brought against Roman politicians made failure something to be avoided at all costs. It was truly said that any Roman Governor needed three years in office; one to pay off the expenditure in rising to high office, one to make a fortune and one to amass the funds for legal defence after his term in office expired.
But, some would argue, the West does have dedicated police forces. Surely we can avoid the pitfalls facing the Roman Republic?
Perhaps we can. But, like so many of the other pillars of our society, the police forces are under threat. And, like the other threats, it contributes to the overall decline of our civilisation.
Equality before the law is a relatively new invention. The Romans had a court case that pitted a Roman Citizen against an Italian. The Roman won by reminding the (Roman) court that he was a citizen of Rome – would they rather listen to him or a foreigner? There was no other defence, but one wasn't necessary. He was acquitted.
The Western concept of equality is quite simple. Everything that can be used to separate one human from another (the diversity lauded by left-wing thinkers) is not taken into account. It does not matter if someone is male or female, black or white, religious or atheist, young or old – such matters are left out of the equation. The jury is expected to debate solely on the merits of the case – and, with a presumption of innocence, unless proven guilty. A suspect must not prove his innocence, the prosecution must prove his guilt. (If he can prove his innocence, all the better, but it isn't his responsibility.)
I mention this because there are two different kinds of civil police force extant in the world today. The first is the politically-neutral police force, typified by the idealised British Bobby; the second is the deeply corrupt and brutal police forces which can be found throughout almost any Third World state (and bear a great deal of the blame for why those states are counted among the Third World.)
This is actually quite important. Where justice is blind, there is justice; where justice sees, there is no justice. It is, in fact, an important precept of Western Law that all are equal before the law, that little things such as sex, race, wealth and so on are not taken into account when someone is put on trial and sentenced. This is, of course, the ideal. However, it is quite difficult for someone to use wealth or power in the West to create an ideal end result.
But this isn't true where police forces are deeply corrupt. Policemen in the Third World tend to be underpaid (hence willing to take bribes, then start soliciting them), brutal or simply biased in favour of one political faction or another. Part of the reason Iraq slipped into Civil War after Operation Iraqi Freedom was that the Shia made up most of the police force and the Shia wanted payback for years of Sunni oppression. Even without the chaos of civil war, police forces in the Third World can be utterly merciless to the poor, or those without political power.
The West’s ideal of justice is blind.
And it is the task of the police force to police the population, while trying to be even-handed.
It isn't an easy job.
There will be people who say that society doesn’t need policing, that decent people don’t need to be watched constantly and that the police are parasites, drains on society. Such an attitude is badly flawed. As long as there is a concept of criminal behaviour, behaviour that is outside the pale, there will be criminals. And there will be a need for a police force to try to keep crime under control.
Some people will argue, as some did when I talked about this for the first time, that an armed citizenry can handle policing, without a force of uniformed officers. This harks back, I think, to the days when police officers were closer to the population (like the ideal western sheriff) rather than to any genuine concept. The problem with relying on civilians to handle law enforcement is that people can and do make mistakes, particularly when faced with a need to make a decision in a split-second. Let us assume, for example, that an armed man stumbles across a couple having sex in an alleyway. Is he witnessing a rape, and thus is perfectly justified in shooting the rapist, or merely a pair of horny idiots being unable to wait until they got a room? A mistake could result in tragedy.
[This also leads to the problem that one group of civilians may have more or less firepower than another group, thus leading to ‘might makes right’ instead of any form of ‘justice.’]
There are also the questions raised by prejudice. If you rely on what is, to all intents and purposes, mob justice, you will be encouraging discrimination against anyone who steps out of line. If someone dislikes homosexuality, what is to stop him from issuing ‘justice’ against homosexuals? Or, if a father dislikes his daughter’s boyfriend, what is to stop him shooting the poor bastard and claiming he shot a rapist? Or what is to prevent someone imposing religious standards on a community? (This has already become a problem in religious communities across the West – the Muslims are the worst offenders, but they’re not the only ones.)
Mob justice is a dangerous thing. It is a genie that should never be let out of the bottle.
But why do we have trials and lawyers and judges and juries? We have them to ensure that tempers cool, that both sides have a chance to present their arguments, that a honest and impartial jury stands in judgement and comes to a decision without fear or favour.
And to bring people to face a court, instead of mob justice, we need a police force.
But what is a crime, anyway?
It will not surprise anyone that the definition of crime has changed radically since the early days of mankind, when it could reasonably be summed up as ‘anything the headman didn't like.’ For example, the ancient civilisations were quite brutal by our standards and engaged in behaviour that we would consider criminal. The Spartans practiced homosexual relationships between older men and young boys that we would label paedophilia. Romans, on the other hand, married off their daughters young, often very young. Indeed, a girl was considered old enough to formalise (by having sex) the marriage as soon as she started her periods.
Other crimes are fairly new. Drugs were considered a social evil in Britain for years before anyone managed to ban opium dens (and, so far, no one has actually managed to ban tobacco and alcohol, which are arguably worse) and the concept of going to take drugs wasn't considered more than a bad habit. (Sherlock Holmes takes both cocaine and opium in canon stories, despite Watson’s lectures.) Arranging a marriage for one’s child wasn't considered unusual until around 1900 – and is still practiced in many parts of the world. The Age of Consent being 16 (in the UK) is relatively new too, while it is obviously different in other parts of the world.
Indeed, crimes like ebook piracy were impossible as little as twenty years ago because there were no such things as ebooks – and governments had enough problems without writing laws to cover imaginary crimes. There's no law against flying like Superman, for example, for the very real reason no one can. (But if that changes, expect there to be laws in short order.)
But the precise issue of just what is a crime is subject to so many arguments that it is tempting to believe that liberalism is intended to be nothing more than an assault on society itself. Given the chance, a person can rationalise their way into believing that almost anything should be legally permissible (an odd twist on the concept that anything is permitted if not forbidden) and thus wind up with arguments that they cling to, even though they disgust them.
Let me pose a moral argument for my readers. Teenagers are starting to have sex earlier and earlier (never mind that marriageable age in the past was often around 12, at least for girls). Let us assume that Bob (15) and Jill (14) have started a sexual relationship. They’re bright kids, so they’re using condoms to prevent an unexpected pregnancy. But they’re both, legally, deemed incapable of giving consent.
And then Bob turns 16. Immediately, Bob is guilty of statutory rape. (A statutory crime is one that is always a crime, like sleeping with someone under the age of consent.) By the law, Bob should be arrested, charged with paedophilic rape (forced sex with a child) and thrown into jail as a sex offender. And he is guilty, because Jill is legally unable to give consent. It doesn't matter to the law that they talked their way through it, that they took precautions and that no force was involved. Bob is a paedophile.
I suspect that quite a few readers will disagree with that assertion. They will be horrified at the thought of Bob having his life ruined (and yes, it will be ruined.) In that case, they will demand the law be changed to allow for consenting teenagers below the age of 16 to have sex. Perhaps they would be right ... except that would open the floodgate for adults to have sex with teenagers. If Bob and Jill are doing nothing wrong, people will ask, precisely why is it wrong for a 40-year-old to have sex with a 13-year-old?
This is not a question many liberals would find easy to answer. If we state that the age of consent is flexible, we are opening a legal pathway to argue that a paedophilic relationship is in fact legal. But if we consider the age of consent an insurmountable barrier, we cause hundreds of little tragedies and call the very judgement of the law into question.
But why do we have a fixed age of consent in the first place?
Judging the maturity of a teenager is never an easy task. It becomes impossible if one doesn't know the teenager in question. The law finds it easier to ban sexual relations involving anyone under the age of 16 than to try to handle each case individually. And, in many ways, it works. A 40-year-old man should know better than to try to start a relationship with a girl so very much younger than him. But the laws intended to prevent such predators also run the risk of catching innocent teenagers.
These problems are bad enough. But there are worse problems.
Humans are not one vast homogenous mass. I was raised in a culture where it was generally agreed that I would meet and marry someone for myself, that I wouldn't need the approval of my parents and that my wife wouldn't need the approval of her parents. But my culture is not the only one. There are cultures where children are expected to marry partners selected by their parents, with only a short meeting to decide, and are often forced into it if they refuse to wed willingly. To me, those marriages are rapes (with the possible twist of both partners being forced into a sexual relationship.) The parents in question should spend the rest of their lives in prison. But others will disagree.
Can culture be used as an excuse for criminal behaviour? Can religion be used as an excuse for criminal behaviour?
I would say no.
But others (again) will disagree. Do I have a right to force my culture, which insists that children should grow up to choose their own martial partners, on someone who grew up believing that his parents will choose his wife for him? Liberals will muddy the issue by claiming that this is a form of cultural imperialism (and they might, in a sense, be right.) But, on the other hand, such a relationship will involve coercion and innocents forced into an unwanted marriage. And that is what such hair-splitting forgets. There are innocent people at risk.
The police are needed to intervene if someone is forced into a marriage. Because few people directly involved will try.
And yet, throughout the West, police forces are held in increasingly greater fear and contempt and even outright hatred. Not from criminals, who might be expected to dislike the people charged with catching them, but from ordinary citizens, the people who need the police to protect them. Why is this true? If a patient wouldn't hate a doctor, why would a civilian hate a policeman? There’s no logic in it, is there?
Well yes, there is. And it’s the source of the problems affecting the law enforcement forces of the West today.
I recently considered a list of everyone I considered either a friend or an acquaintance. I have, it seems, precisely one friend who serves in the British Police Force. I have a feeling – I can't actually prove this – that there aren't that many people in Britain who do know a policeman out of uniform. This is a potential problem. Just as the shift from patrolling on foot to patrolling in cars made it harder for coppers to keep their fingers to the pulse of what was going on, it also put a barrier between policemen and civilians.
This alone is bad enough, but it gets worse. There has been no shortage, over the past few years of incidents in both Britain and America that call the judgement, competence and basic decency of the police forces into question. People have been arrested on flimsy pretexts, money has been confiscated (apparently, it’s legal in the USA to confiscate money if the officer on the spot believes it is related to drugs, forcing the owner to prove their innocence rather than the law his guilt) and people have been killed in shootings or brutalised by excessive force. It’s never easy to tell how much of the noise is just noise, but the overall picture seems to be alarming.
There are worse problems. For example, there was a nasty episode of rapes (including underage girls) in Oldham, England. There are some grounds to believe that local police chose to ignore the early signs and complaints because the perpetrators were Muslims, a problem caused by political correctness (i.e. a member of an ethnic/religious minority should be treated with kid gloves, because even looking at them funny is grounds for an investigation. In the US, an investigation against the New Black Panthers for voter intimidation was dismissed shortly after Obama won the election. (A coincidence? Even if it was, it stinks like Limburger.) And, also in America, the Department of Homeland Security seems to be more worried about survivalists and constructionists than either protecting the border or keeping an eye on Islamic terrorist groups.
This is a major problem. But it gets worse.
There is a fundamental difference between personal guilt and institutional guilt. Personal guilt exists when someone commits a crime, however defined. Institutional guilt, however, exists when the organisation chooses to cover up the crime or soft-pedal it, rather than carry out the hard task of punishment. Contrast, for example, the Catholic Church’s tepid response to sexual abusers among the clergy in comparison to the US Army’s response to Steven Green and his comrades. The Church has spent more time trying to deny the existence of paedophilic priests than actually removing them, while the Army reacted, investigated, tried the suspects, found them guilty and put them in jail. Guess which one is not institutionally guilty?
It isn't the Church.
For police officers, the growing separation between them and civilians leads to a belief that policemen, their comrades, are always in the right and/or picked on by ignorant civilians. There is some truth in that viewpoint. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates was a case of a police officer trying to follow procedure being lambasted for it by the chattering classes – including, in a dangerous foretaste of things to come, the President of the United States. It was not a case of racism, but – as always – the charge of racism requires the person accused to clear himself, rather than be proven guilty. Law enforcement officers were justly furious at both the accusations and the President’s intervention.
This tends to lead to an ‘us against them’ attitude that is dangerous at the best of times. It is hard for humans to realise that ‘us’ may be in the wrong, or that ‘one of us’ isn't the fine fellow we like to think he is. Police officers thus tend to rally round other police officers, unless there is very clear evidence that the police officer in question is a criminal, corrupt or just a colossal asshole. There’s one in every large organisation. ‘Betraying’ ones fellows is, in the eyes of many police officers, dangerously corrosive. Police officers have to trust each other to do their job. But this very trend – and the contempt it leads to for ‘them’ (i.e. the public) – destroys trust in the police force.
(Something similar may have played a role in SF fandom’s unwillingness to contemplate the possibility that the charges against Marion Eleanor Zimmer and Walter H. Breen were rooted in reality. They were ‘us’ as far as fandom was concerned.)
And this is far from the only problem. Police officers don’t actually sentence criminals to jail. That’s the task of the courts. But the courts have become increasingly politicised over the last few years, with high-visibility cases further damaging confidence in law and order. The OJ Simpson case and the Traven Martin/George Zimmerman cases were both highly politicised, creating a situation that – no matter the result – a large percentage of America would be unhappy with the verdict. (The Zimmerman case saw the worst abuse of power in an attempt to find something – anything – to pin on Zimmerman.)
And then we have laws intended to stop terrorists being used for other purposes. Britain’s anti-terrorist laws have been used to spy on civilians for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorists. Indeed, hate-spewing preachers have been allowed to go free and practice their vile art while ordinary citizens have been arrested for very minor crimes, if indeed they are minor crimes. (It is notable that the original builders of the Finsbury Park Mosque protested to the police about the takeover of the mosque by radicals, only to be ignored.)
If the population of a country – any country – doubts the prospect of a fair trial, they will have no motivation to submit to it. And if they have no respect for the law, a perception that it upholds the rights of the criminal over the rights of the victims, they will see no reason to support it. And that will prove fatal to society.
Right now, in Britain, there is a perception that certain classes of society can literally get away with murder. (This may or may not be true. The point is that a great many people believe it to be true.) Immigrants, for example, have often stalled deportation procedures for months or years, often taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights (and thus drawing the ECHR into disrepute). Ethnic minorities have been allowed to practice illegal cultural practices (arranged marriages) without much impediment. Religious extremists have been allowed to spread hatred, or go abroad to fight in enemy forces (the Islamic State of Iraq, for example.)
True or not, it threatens the underpinnings of society and breeds hatred.
With that in mind, how might we proceed to mend the damage to our law enforcement system?
First, we might as well redefine criminal acts. I would suggest borrowing a modified form of Heinlein’s definition – ‘a criminal act is an act that harms non-consenting people (or has a strong possibility of harming people),’ with an assumption that children are never able to give consent. Homosexuality between consenting adults, for example, should not be considered a crime.
Second, we should insist on a right to trial by jury for all criminal acts. If necessary, jurors should sign the Official Secrets Act (in the UK) if cases include secret evidence that should not be made public. The jury should have the final say on the verdict, including the (declared) ability to dismiss the case at any point. They will therefore be able to make a more balanced decision than anyone else.
Third, sentences should be handed down as specified, with no time off for good behaviour (or immediate deportation if the suspect is a foreigner/immigrant). Certain crimes should result in permanent incarceration or the death penalty – serial killers, child molesters and terrorists. The idea is to prevent them causing further harm, not tend to their rights.
Fourth, police officers (or other law enforcement agents) accused of misbehaviour against the public are to be called to face a jury composed of members of the public. They will have a chance to present their defence and explain why they acted in the manner they did. If found guilty, they will be instantly dismissed from the police force and tried under the same conditions as civilians.
Fifth, politicians, reporters and celebrities are to be barred from commenting, speculating or otherwise attempting to influence the outcome of the trial. The bare facts are one thing, slanting the narrative is quite another. The Zimmerman trial was threatened by conflicting narratives established by both sides of the case, which would have almost certainly led to a retrial if the defence had lost.
Sixth, laws should be used for their intended purposes only. Laws for dealing with terrorists should not be used for other purposes, as they weaken faith in the laws themselves.
I do not know if these ideas are enough to start repairing the damage we have done, in the interests of liberalism and political correctness, but the problem is growing acute. Law and order are the foundations of our society – and they’re starting to crumble. I don’t think we will like it when they collapse for good.
Christopher G. Nuttall