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Friday, August 05, 2005


Passing by on the other side

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine, a young Japanese woman, was attacked while travelling on the tube in London. A group of white youths shouted racist insults and pelted her with screwed-up pieces of paper. It was not a serious physical assault yet, when I happened to meet her shortly afterwards, she was shaken and in tears.

It turned out that the main reason for her distress was not so much the assault itself; it was that none of the other passengers in the tube car had come to her aid.

It would seem that Good Samaritans are in short supply these days. A much more serious example of 'passing by on the other side' was
reported in Thursday's Guardian (G2 supplement). A young man was stabbed to death on a London bus for no apparent reason. Despite his girlfriend's pleas for help, most of the other passengers made themselves scarce when the bus stopped and only five passengers plus the bus driver have so far provided the police with witness statements.

Crimes like these elicit a predictable response from politicians and the media: we must have more police. Yet Britain already has more police officers per capita than at any time in its history. The Liberal Democrats, in this year's general election manifesto, promised to create 10,000 more police officers, as if it were some sort of crude trade-off to reduce crime.

Yet the vast majority of crime is detected by the public. Liberals should focus more on building a higher level of public confidence in the police, which makes police work more effective, and on rekindling a sense of active citizenship, which creates a genuinely safer society.

In the forthcoming August edition of Liberator, an article by Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone contains a lot of good advice on how to campaign locally on crime. Further, she argues that fighting crime is something all of us have to do. She writes,

One of Sir Robert Peel's nine founding principles of policing, laid out when he created our country's modern police force, talks of the relationship between the public and the police, "the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen, in the interests of community welfare and existence."

Fighting crime isn't just something you can pay for through your taxes and then ignore. It's something all of society has to do. Unless we want a police state with policemen and cameras on every street corner, there will always be a role for the eyes and ears of non-policemen. And unless we have every room, phone line and open space bugged and filmed, there will always be a need for evidence seen or heard by members of the public.
Lynne has succeeded in re-opening local police stations in her constituency, the front desks staffed by local volunteers. She has this advice for objectors who expect to pay their taxes and then do nothing.

Of course, a few dye-in-the-wool Tories in the area said, "It's outrageous. I pay my taxes. Why on earth should I now have to do anything else?"

The answer is simple: "Sorry, we believe in a community where everyone works together. If you want just to leave some money out and then hide yourself away, we're not the party for you."

Getting volunteers isn't about finding a way of making the sums add up to reopen a public service; it's about having a public service that is closely connected to the community.
Unlike Lynne, most Liberal Democrat activists have got themselves in a bind, committing themselves to ever-growing amounts of 'casework' without achieving the original goal of community politics, which was genuinely to empower local people.

David Boyle, writing in last month's Liberator (
issue 303), argued for

... a radical new offer from politicians to the public. Not any more 'ask and you shall receive' – nobody believes that any more, least of all the voters. It says: we can achieve these things, but not without your help.

As politicians we can assist, we can provide leadership and some resources, but – they must say to the public – we can't do it without you.
Lynne Featherstone and David Boyle are both right. We have to devolve responsibility as well as power and encourage active citizenship. The alternative is a vicious circle and no longer viable; futile attempts by politicians to meet inflationary demands for public services, leading to increasing popular contempt for politicians who can't deliver, and more Liberal Democrat activists burnt out by being unpaid social workers.

Of course the state used to require citizens to intervene if they saw a crime being committed. To help them do this they were permitted to carry arms.

In the situation you describe who is able to intervene against a gang of youths who may well be carrying knives or other weapons? Would you do it?

The state disarmed the population on an understanding that the police would protect them. If the state is now saying that the police cannot keep its side of the bargain, is it time to rearm the people?
'Bishop Hill' [and I do wish some bloggers didn't hide behind pseudonyms - it's not big and it's not clever] bases his argument on two false premises; an alleged historical 'bargain', which never actually occurred, and an assumption that active citizenship means 'having a go'.

The argument of the original posting is about the need for active citizenship, and the fact that the police have always operated most effectively with the active support of their local communities.

As the Peel quote (in the main posting) indicates, since its inception, Britain's police force has always been a civilian force (unlike, say, in France). We have traditionally had a system of 'policing by consent' in which the police are part of their community (not outsiders sitting in a barracks on the edge of town, like the French gendarmerie).

Policing in a democratic society will not work if the public's attitude is that their sole duty is to pay tax. The sensible alternative is active citizenship, not private militias.
Sorry that my use of a pseudonym bothers you.

So if it's not about having a go, what should one do in the situation you describe?
For an idea of what the average citizen should do in a situation such as the murder on the bus, refer to the Guardian article (link in the original post), and contrast the author's civic-minded behaviour with that of her fellow passengers. As a minimum in that situation, all the bus passengers should have offered witness statements to the police instead of deciding that the incident was none of their business. One can help without necessarily 'having a go'.

Violent attacks such as these are, however, relatively rare occurences. The more typical situations when the ordinary citizen should assist the police are when they see suspicious or anti-social behaviour, for example, reporting a suspected break-in or ticking-off misbehaving children.

I recall that, when I was a child, this sense of responsibility towards one's community was normal. Nowadays, instead of taking their share of responsibility, people are more inclined to phone the council and demand an ASBO.

We can't expect to live in safe communities unless we have a sense of community.
I agree that people should be more willing to intervene where it is appropriate, whilst not exposing themseves to danger - but the 7/7 myth of the "Heroic" Londoner seems to have been shattered by the behaviour of people on the bus described in the Guardian article.

One point of disagreement though: all your contributors are required to register, and instructions clearly state that your site cannot accept anonymous contributions - so you should know exactly who "Bishop Hill" is.
I agree with your point about reporting suspicious or antisocial behaviour, although I think many people have a suspicion that doing so has no effect.

To come back to the violent crime scenario though, are you really saying that in the tube scenario you describe at the start of your post, the people who failed to asssist the Japanese woman were actually doing the correct thing by not getting involved, but that they should have assisted her afterwards by giving statements to the police?

If I'm understanding you correctly, I'm appalled. But I may be missing something.
In reply to Andrew - Blogger.com gives its bloggers the option of requiring potential contributors to register first. I opted to do this because I did not want to be flamed by the sort of American right-wing cranks infesting cyberspace who lash out with "pinko commie faggot"-style insults. Requiring contributors to register does not prevent anonymity since, as Bishop Hill shows, one can register under an assumed name, so I do not necessarily know who he really is. But the process does at least give potential contributors pause for thought and tends to filter out gratuitous abuse.

In reply to Bishop Hill - You have misunderstood my earlier reply. At no stage did I suggest that the only appropriate public response to the tube incident was to give a statement to the police. In this specific instance, the youths were not armed and their behaviour could probably have been stopped had two or three other passengers simply expressed strong disapproval. Indeed, the youths could act in the way they did only in a climate in which no disapproval is expressed and where everyone hides behind their copy of the Evening Standard.
Presumably the knowledge that the youths were unarmed is only available with the benefit of hindsight? Normally you just don't know.

It's very difficult isn't it? You suggest that a group of passengers could intervene (at least verbally). Could the person who stood up and suggested to the other passengers that they intervene together be attacked by the youths? Who knows? Even if a group of passengers expressed strong disapproval, what if the youths didn't stop? What if they reacted violently? I am neither young nor strong enough to defend myself against a gang of youths. I would be better off keeping my head down.

The thing that worries me is that if I were on that tube, and not knowing if the youths were armed or violent, I would probably be forced to leave the Japanese woman to her fate. Noone can be happy with such a situation.
No two cases are alike and each requires us to make a judgement. Occasionally, as you say, it can be a difficult call.

However, this does not invalidate the general principle that it is preferable to live in a society in which civic-mindedness is the norm, as opposed to a world in which none of us feels any sense of responsibility to our fellow citizens.
I know I'm a bit late in the game on this one, but I think I'll have to agree with Simon on this. I cannot believe that people would just sit there and do nothing.

In the case of the young woman, why didn't someone offer for her to come sit with them to offer moral support??

And the murder? The police should have been bombarded with witnesses.

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