Saturday, 20 August 2011

Asking the Wrong Question on Riot Control

 Two zoo keepers are discussing a recent tragedy. For a long time they have prided themselves on the openness of their zoo: the animals are orderly, the visitors safe, restraints few. Unlike zoos in other countries, they have not needed to use iron bars and electric tags to control their animals. Their reputation is a source of pride.

 Yet recently there have been problems. The animals had been growing more restive, more threatening. Guests were becoming more nervous and less frequent. All of this had come to a head last night, when a lion went on a rampage, eventually leading other animals to do the same. Thousands of pounds worth of damage had been done, many people had been injured and, worst of all, four people had been killed.  Perhaps even worse was the fact that many were blaming the limp response of the zoo keepers for the rampage being so long. Something has to be done, and the response of their visitors is clear: get tough, cage the lion.

 One zoo keeper, greatly attached to the idea of an open zoo and the reputation of his well-ordered animals, asks: "Are we the kind of zoo that cages lions?!"

 The second, perhaps more realistic one asks himself: "Is it the sort of lion that needs caging?"

 Which do you think is the right question?*


 I've never opened an article with a parable before, to the best of my knowledge. Yet it seemed a nice way to sum up succinctly the thoughts that go through my mind whenever I hear people talking about how certain types of riot control 'aren't British' or 'aren't how we police in this country'. This has always struck me as focusing on entirely the wrong thing.

 If one was to boast about how peaceable and law-abiding Britain has been, the form of words must surely be "Britain is a country that doesn't need to use water cannon and rubber bullets to control her people - they control themselves". The riot policing techniques that we don't use aren't key to the boast, they are simply an illustrative symptom of the style of law and order required on the UK mainland. The source of pride must surely be not that they aren't used in Britain, but that they aren't needed.

 Yet many commentators, both left and right, appear to have turned illness and symptom on their heads. To them the main source of pride appears to be simply that we don't use certain tactics, with no reference to the task that these tactics are supposed to perform. Theresa May's comments about the deployment of water cannon, which I quoted in a previous article, provide a good example of what I mean.

 Surely it is foolish to presume that there is any inherent moral value in disdaining certain policing tactics, none of which are horrifying, regardless of circumstance. If Britain doesn't need rubber bullets and water cannon, then boasting that we don't need these things makes sense. But if British rioters do need to be controlled in such a fashion, taking pride in failing to take necessary measures to protect life and property is outright idiotic.

 Why do people on the left and right end up taking this bizarre position? I can think of a couple of reasons.

 For the right, its a bit like sticking one's fingers in one's ears and watching a slideshow of the 1950's while humming God Save the Queen: a form of denial, of escapism as public policy. As long as we don't start using 'nasty' riot policing like they do on the continent, we can continue to cling to the tattered myth that the British are, in their own quiescent way, the morally superior people. Admitting that the sort of outstanding good manners and public order that used to be a hallmark of the 'English' has faded away is too difficult. As long as we don't use water cannon, and they do, then we can pretend that Britain is still a land of almost mystical public order and - importantly - we're better than France, which isn't.

 From the left, it tends to come from those who are in sympathy with whichever cause they have projected onto the rioters. The fact that the police can't use these measures is a good thing because these commentators don't want them to, rather than the other way round. I've written about the sometimes excessively liberal approach of the Metropolitan Police to civil disorder once or twice on TSJ. None of these commentators want to risk the British public, political establishment and police overcoming their reluctance to use hard riot policing techniques, lest they be used to prevent the next assault on CCHQ.

 The moral nature of riot police tactics, like many other things, is contextual, not absolute. Using CS gas or baton rounds on a few people holding placards on a high street is wrong. Using CS gas or baton rounds to disperse a mob attacking buildings, jeopardising property and human life, is not. Without the right perspective, policy makers will fail to establish policy that restores the respect and confidence of the public to the police. Before they try to find the answer to preventing future riots, those in charge must make sure that they're asking the right questions.

 *As there are always a few humourless people reading this blog, I'll pre-empt a couple of responses to this parable now. 1) No, I do not believe that the rioters are animals, and 2) "but what if, like, we lived in a world without zoo keepers, man?" is not a good comeback. People would get eaten.

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