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False compassion for the poor

Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, 08-03-2012.

In his article on London in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Oh, London, You Drama Queen,” novelist China Miéville writes: “The aftermath [of the recent riots] was one of panicked reaction. Courts became runnels for judicial cruelty, dispensing sentences vastly more severe than anything usual for similar crimes.”

This is the statement of a typical intellectual whose indifference to the actual lives of the urban poor masquerades as compassion for them. Miéville fails to mention that most of the sentences handed down were for people with criminal records, no doubt in many cases long ones. The real judicial cruelty—not to the criminals but to their victims—was the leniency before the riots that gave the rioters a hitherto justified sense of impunity.


One cannot say often enough that the victims of crime are, like the perpetrators, more likely to be poor than rich. For example, single-parent households in Britain have a more than one-in-20 chance of being burgled in any given year; and since most burglars are recidivists, indeed multiply so, it follows that the class of victim is much larger than the class of perpetrator. Leniency toward criminals is not therefore a form of sympathy for the poor, but a failure to take either their lives or their property seriously. For Miéville to talk of “panicked reaction” in these circumstances is a form of moral exhibitionism. He is showing off in front of his peers.

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