Hard News by Russell Brown


The Policeman at the Dinner Table

I personally like Peter Cresswell: he is an engaging and intelligent man. Unfortunately, he is also an objectivist libertarian, which means he will often go off on ideologically-motivated rants that enjoy all the internal consistency of your average tantrum.

Case in point: his NotPC blog post from Friday, Time to make a stand!, which came to my notice via the Herald on Sunday's Blog of the Week column. It is channelling the spirit of Leighton Smith:

What does it take for New Zealanders to rise up and demand their government forego all the nonsense they shouldn't be bothering with, all the bossy-boot bullshit about baubles and bureaucracy and scampi and scandals, and focus instead on the one thing they're legitimately supposed to be doing, which is protecting New Zealanders from violence?

What does it take?

Will the random, violent, bloodthirsty stabbing of a man in central Auckland last night be the final straw? Is that enough, finally, to make you sit up and say "No more!"

Will it make you speak out to demand that government start doing its real job? That it starts protecting you and me from every nutter who'd like to raise a hand against us in violence, instead of doing us over themselves? That it begins to realise the primary focus of law and order is protection from criminals, not protection for criminals.

It's not clear what Cresswell is proposing here. The suspension of habeas corpus? An expansion of police enforcement and surveillance so prodigious as to guarantee an officer's intervention? Or that a middle-aged businessman from the Shore should be packing heat every time he steps out of the lift after work, just in case?

There have been four other stabbing homicides in Auckland since July. Relatively speaking, that's a lot. But they are not the kind of crimes that Peter's cri de coeur would save "us" from. They all happened indoors; three in CBD apartments, one in a house in Mt Roskill. They were, literally, cases of domestic violence, in which perpetrator and victim were known to each other.

Thursday's tragic homicide was also, in essence, an incident of family violence. A 45 year-old man -- quiet and god-fearing, apparently -- was unable to accept the end of a relationship. He travelled to the building where his partner worked and, by tragic chance, found his own sister. He assaulted her. Austin Hemmings came to her aid (whether by physically intervening or simply attempting to summon help, it's not clear), was stabbed and died within minutes.

The man arrested by police was not on bail or parole and apparently has no history of drug abuse or mental illness. But he is a sickness beneficiary and for Cresswell -- deftly applying righteousness as the cement between correlation and causation -- that is proof enough that welfarism is to blame.

Maybe we will discover that the man has a criminal history, maybe not. But Austin Hemmings was fatally caught up in a kind of crime that happens overwhelmingly behind closed doors. His death is particularly tragic -- a good Samaritan, a family bereft. But would it somehow have been better if the man had found her partner as he intended, and killed her?

So what to do? We hardly want a policeman at the dinner table, or members of the household carrying arms against each other in their lounges and bedrooms.

What we might do is try and catch and prosecute this kind of violent crime earlier; encourage reporting (and, indeed, a greater readiness to report is largely responsible for an increase in recorded violent crime), emphasise its irreducible unacceptability, try and pick it up in a public health context -- even if it means doing something as squishy as asking someone about their feelings.

All the measures, that is, that Creswell mocked and railed against in another post.

Cresswell's animating thought is a conceit I'm sure he shares with many other Leighton Smith listeners: he is on the virtuous side of what is almost a divide of the species: us and them. The trouble that is that unless your definition of the divide is particularly odious, "us" and "them" will very often share a roof.

All of this only partially relates to common street crime on strangers, which requires its own balance of prevention, enforcement and punishment. But what happened last Thursday wasn't common street crime, and neither were those other four murders. What staggers me is how many people are prepared to carry on as if they were.

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