28 August 2003, 846 words
Last week, a man was put in jail for having sex with a cow. The cow had to be destroyed because, according to the vet who examined it, the animal appeared to be "distressed" by the experience. Exactly how the vet came to this conclusion was not explained. Nor apparently did the vet think the cow might be even more distressed by being killed.
The man was convicted under the Sexual Offences Act, which may well be the second most absurd piece of legislation on our statute books (the first being the law against blasphemy). This Act also makes buggery an offence, even if done by consent between a man and a woman: and in the case you labour under the delusion that we are a progressive society, the penalty was raised from 10 to 25 years' imprisonment in 1986.
Such laws show the absurdity of the Ken Gordon Committee's recommendation that "All laws be enforced" as part of the strategy to reduce crime in the country. Bestiality may be repulsive but, as a matter of legal principle, it belongs to the same class of crime as vandalism or cruelty to animals. And adults having anal sex is simply not the State's business. When a society has on its statute books laws which are irrational, impractical and irrelevant, and when those laws are rigorously enforced, the result is the opposite of the intended effect: people merely become convinced that the law is indeed an ass.
But one also has to ask whether the principle itself is correct. Gordon's call for all laws to be enforced is based on the "zero tolerance policy" made famous under New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. This policy, which has been touted as the reason for the steep drop in that city's crime rate in the early 1990s, was based on what is called the "broken windows theory". The theory, promoted mainly by right-wing American commentator James Q. Wilson, holds that ignoring minor infractions causes people to lose respect for the law and leads to increasing social disorder.
Now I am not as eminent as either Messrs. Wilson or Gordon. But I do have a nasty habit of researching ideas, and I don't know of any psychological or political principle which supports the zero-tolerance policy.
Politically, the only regimes which punish minor infractions are totalitarian ones: the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, Puritan rulers in 19th century Salem, Nazis in 20th-century Germany, and Islamic theocracies nowadays. And, while totalitarian regimes always have a superficial order, their deeper characteristics are always official corruption, cruelty, and the misery of the average citizen.
Psychologically, it is true that an orderly environment encourages most people to behave in a lawful fashion. But the broken windows theory has it exactly backwards. People do not respect the law when minor infractions are punished: they respect the law when major infractions are. That is, as long as people see that the law applies equally to the rich and powerful as to the poor and powerless, it results in disciplined citizens and an orderly society.
Harvard law professor Bernard Harcourt, in an essay titled Policing Disorder, remarks, "Police brutality is a form of disorder, yet it appears nowhere as a target of broken windows policing. Everyday tax evasion&emdash;paying cash to avoid sales tax, paying nannies under the table, using an out-of-state address&emdash;is disorderly. So are public corruption, sham accounting practices, nepotism, insider trading, and fraud. Why does broken windows focus on the dollar-fifty turnstile jump rather than on the hundred-million dollar accounting scam?"
Harcourt argues that factors other than zero-tolerance were more relevant to the drop in crime in New York. These included favorable economic conditions in the 1990s, gun-oriented policing and enhanced drug enforcement initiatives, new computerized tracking systems that speed up police responses to crime, a dip in the number of 18- to 24-year-old males as well as shifts in adolescent behavior, and a significant increase in the sheer number of police officers.
Even the nation's police were actually gung-ho enough and ethical enough to make zero-tolerance practical, it would be pointless to "enforce all laws" by charging people who litter or use obscene language or urinate in public, distasteful as these acts may be. Nor will roadblocks or a state of emergency significantly reduce crime. If law enforcement is intended to create an orderly society, then enforcement must start at the top. As long as MPs have not declared their assets as required by law, then people will not respect the law. As long as Abu Bakr walks into court unhandcuffed and gets bail from the same judge who freed Brad Boyce, people will not respect the law. As long as former President ANR Robinson gets luxury vehicle tax breaks at the whim of Cabinet, people will not respect the law.
If the Manning administration really wants to contain crime, then they must not only implement the technical measures needed, but also act as exemplars. But nowadays nobody is really sure what Patrick Manning really wants, except of course a new Parliament building.
Copyright ©2003 Kevin Baldeosingh