So, the UK government has decided to de-criminalise members of the public who use excessive force on those who taken it upon themselves to pay an unannounced, unofficial and illegal visit to your house and family, sporting a crowbar and a balaclava.
A large proportion of you are probably sat there thinking ‘what a good idea’, ‘the law should be on our side’, ‘we should be able to defend our own homes without fear’ or something similar. Having our own homes, our castles, invaded is many people’s single greatest fear and the idea that we are in the wrong by trying to protect our castle by any means necessary has an inevitable, powerful, emotional response and we instinctively protest when we hear about people being punished for doing so.
Take Tony Martin, for example – British national hero of injustice, who shot at some burglars out of fear and self defense – who had broken in to his isolated farmhouse – with a legally owned shotgun. Except that he had an illegal shotgun, his firearms license had been revoked, he had already fired it at someone else for scrumping apples from his orchard, and was proven to have lay in wait for the burglars, ambushed them and fired two shots in to their backs as they were trying to escape.
Or how about Munir Hussain, who was tied up with his family, threatened with 12in knives and told they would all be murdered that night, who then escaped, raised the alarm and chased after the burglars, catching them in next door’s garden? He and three other men then proceeded to beat one of the burglars to within an inch of his life with a cricket bat and a hockey stick, were begged to stop by an onlooker but refused, and left the burglar with permanent brain damage.
These are the two most famous cases in the UK, and are common in the public outcry that resulted from their convictions. Were they reasonable? Proportionate? A fair and balanced response to the situation? No.
In both cases, the worst damage was done after the criminals were trying to escape – crucially, after the danger had passed, and this is what the cases hang on. This is what the judge, Judge Reddihough, said about the Munir Hussain case:
The prosecution rightly made it plain that there was no allegation against you, Munir Hussain, in respect of the force you used against Salem in defending your own home and family or of the force used by either of you in apprehending Salem.
However, the attack which then occurred was totally unnecessary and amounted to a very violent revenge attack on a defenceless man. It may be that some members of the public or media commentators will assert that Salem deserved what happened to him, and that you should not have been prosecuted and need not be punished. The courts must make it clear that such conduct is criminal and unacceptable .
Be that as it may, can it be so bad for the government to be on the side of the victim a little bit? To acknowledge in law the powerful emotional reaction we all have to home invaders, and to acknowledge that maybe we might lose control a bit, and that’s OK? Well, yeah, but that’s not really what they’re doing.
The truth is that, between 1990 and 2005, there were just 11 prosecutions for people tackling intruders in any premises, including seven involving homes. Less than one a year. The government is not responding to a social problem, it’s responding to a perceived fear – it’s playing on our emotional responses to romance the right-wing press and our base, primal urges.
The truth is that the law is already on your side. You are entitled to use reasonable force to defend yourself and your property, and this includes perceived risk. Once, whilst working as a manager at a bowling alley, a guy high on drugs threatened to slit my throat, and lunged for his pocket. I didnpt see a knife. It could have been a phone down there. He could even have been pleased to see me. But legally, I would have been within my rights there to use enough force to protect my life against a man holding a knife – i.e. quite a lot – because I had reasonable cause to assume it was there.
The problem comes along when your brain gets in the way, and chucks some fear in to the mix like a flash-bang grenade at your nan’s 80th birthday party. Fear changes our perceptions, it changes our view of the world, it changes our behaviour and our responses. Panic and adrenaline shut down your senses, so that you only notice what your lizard brain thinks is relevant to your survival. After all, these are predators invading your nest to eat your young.
What, you thought your fear was really because someone’s nicking your telly? No, not at all. Your primal lizard brain, the small bit at the back that really runs the show, is screaming at you that there’s a dinosaur munching on your babies, even if it’s really a scally in a track-suit trying to unplug the stereo.
Should we legislate against the lizard brain? I for one don’t think we should. I don’t want my legal system to be based around a set of instinctual fear responses that are a hangover from a distant ancestor, and play no part in the risks and consequences of living in a modern, civilised society. I want my laws to be aspirational, not reverting to the law of the jungle for their justice.
I needn’t worry. This is a publicity stunt, not a real change. This new legislation wouldn’t have gotten Tony Martin off the hook; Munir Hussain would still have gone to prison. It’s a cynical attempt t tug at your strings, to play you like a dumb animal scared for its nest and eggs. Don’t fall for it. Choose society. Turn your back on the jungle.