The riots in Britain are instructive. There is, according to The Wall Street Journal, one neighborhood where the rioters backed off. In the North London neighborhood of Dalton, we are told,
Hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish men, many armed with broken billiard cues, poured onto the streets to protect their businesses and homes from the kind of mayhem that was laying waste to other parts of London.
"They created a barrier and chased the kids back," said Burcu Bay, who works as a waitress at Tugra, a Turkish sweet shop and cafe on Dalston's main thoroughfare. "It was like being in a war."
What happened in Dalston, an area defined by its large Turkish and Kurdish immigrant community, was a rare instance of locals uniting to defy the wave of violence that has swept London in recent nights, leaving a trail of burned-out buildings, looted shops and broken glass. In other areas, rioters encountered little resistance, as terrified locals took cover and stretched police were.
The clashes in Dalston, a ramshackle neighborhood of pawn shops, Turkish social clubs and kebab joints, began when a gang of about 50 youths approached the area from the east, setting fire to a bus and smashing in the windows of a chain restaurant, a bank and an electrical goods shop.
Dozens of local men came out on the street to block their progress. Over the course of the evening, they pushed back the heavily outnumbered troublemakers in three separate surges, driving them away from a cluster of Turkish-owned shops and businesses. Women and elderly men sought refuge in local cafés to watch the clashes from a safe distance.
In some instances, skirmishes turned violent. "The police wanted to arrest one of my friends because he punched some of the guys," said a waiter at the Somine restaurant. "We didn't let them."
A key driver behind the locals' response was the strong sense of communal identity among Turkish and Kurdish residents of Dalston, who saw the rioters as a kind of alien invasion. "These people weren't local," said the waiter. "We've been here for ten years and would have known them if they were from the area."
The article – written by Guy Chazan and Jeanne Whalen with help from Peter Evans – is a nice piece of reporting. It tells you everything that you need to know – right down to the crucial fact that the police wanted to arrest one man for punching a thug intent on stealing his property. What is happening right now in London and in cities to the north could best be described as a self-inflicted wound.
Do you remember the riots a year or two ago in Paris and in other French cities and the burning of cars along the Champs Ėlysées? What you may not remember is something else that was reported in passing at the time – that, for some years prior to these riots, one hundred cars a night were being torched in the cities of France. I passed through Paris not long after these events, and a French professor I know told me that this latter piece of news came as a real shock to her. The truth is that the police had, in effect, abandoned the Muslim neighborhoods and that impecunious, hard-working Muslims living in these neighborhoods, men and women who had scrimped and saved to buy jalopies, had been losing them to the thugs for some time. None of this was reported until the disorders spread from the slums in the suburbs to the wealthy districts of Paris.
Something of the same sort can be said about Britain as well. There are two dimensions to the British story. First – although what we call the right to bear arms had its origins as an English right, guaranteed in the 1688/89 Declaration of Rights and Bill of Rights – that right was gradually abrogated in the course of the twentieth century. Second – although the right to self-defense, the right to defend one’s person and property when the authorities cannot in a timely and effective fashion provide protection – is a natural right and had always, until recently, been recognized as such in Britain – that right, too, was abrogated in the course of the last century. There is a very fine book on the subject by my friend Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. Entitled Guns and Violence: The English Experience, it was published by Harvard University Press seven years ago. Her two books ought to be force-fed to every member of Parliament.
For some time now – and this was already true, alas, in the Thatcher years – the political class (Labour, Tory, and Liberal) has been united behind the principle that these matters must be left to the police – that, if one’s life or limbs are in danger, one can of course use force to defend one’s person but that one cannot rightfully lift a finger to defend one’s property and that, if the attack extends to one’s person, the force that one deploys in its defense must be strictly proportionate to the threat. If, for example, your home was burglarized over and over again and you secured a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat and killed or harmed an intruder, you would go to prison for a long stay.
I am not making this up. I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford between 1971 and 1974. I was a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge in the spring of 1999, and I was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford in 2005/6. In the quarter-century that passed between my first stint in the UK and my second, Britain changed. I remember a man living in a rural area being sent to prison for what amounted to life for killing someone who had repeatedly broken into his home.
I remember other things as well. When I was at Cambridge University, my wife and I went into London one evening to go to the opera. Our return on the train was decidedly uncomfortable. Our car – and the other cars nearby – came to be filled with young women and men (mostly the latter) who were drunk and disorderly. There was no one on the train to prevent them from making our trip a real misery. Had we said a word, I have no doubt that the crowd would have turned on us. It reminds me a bit of what it was like in New York City in the summer of 1969. The hooligans were in command.
In fact, it was worse than that. One evening, a group of thugs took the train into Cambridge from a nearby town, walked to Clare Hall, hurled bricks through the windows, broke into the apartments, stole computers, then marched to the train station and journeyed home. No one was ever caught.
I am told that fewer than ten percent of burglaries are solved and that, of those who are convicted, fewer than ten percent do time. In effect, there is no law and there is no order in Britain. You cannot bear arms. You are denied the means of self-defense. It is illegal to use force to defend your property. If you use “disproportionate force” in defending your person, you can and will be jailed. It is demanded that you leave all such matters to the police, and law enforcement is ineffectual. Not surprisingly, even before the riots that Britain is suffering right now, theft and violent crime were considerably greater there than in the United States.
In Britain, they have a lot to learn – or relearn – and it is an open question whether these recent events will give rise to a bout of a rethinking or not. I rather doubt that David Cameron has the backbone, and one cannot look to the Liberals or to Labour. Those associated with the last-mentioned party, which is out of power right now, will whine and whine about “social justice.” In the United Kingdom, as in the United States, a left-liberal is someone who pities the criminal, not the victim.
In the US, we are generally better off. For one thing, we incarcerate criminals. There has been much hand-wringing about this in recent years, as our own left-liberals fulminate against the incarceration rate. But there is one truth that cannot be gainsaid: a criminal who is locked up is not on the streets committing crimes. Lock them up and the crime rate will go down (as it has in the US).
We are better off in other ways as well. The right to bear arms is not only given lip service here. In recent years, it has been reasserted by the Supreme Court. Moreover, in many states, one has a right to defend one’s property. In those states, if someone breaks into my home, I can kill him with impunity. And, finally, thanks in part to the example of Rudy Giuliani in New York, we have policing methods aimed at concentrating attention on high-crime areas and on harassing criminals that really work.
The appearance of flash mobs in Philadelphia and Chicago is, however, a warning. I would like to know more than I do about the incarceration rate in Pennsylvania and Illinois, about the policing methods used, and about the laws pertinent to the right of a shopkeeper to gun down thieves.
In times like these, it is useful to remember the immortal words of John Adams: “We talk of liberty and property, but, if we cut up the law of self-defence, we cut up the foundation of both. . . . If a robber meets me in the street, and commands me to surrender my purse, I have a right to kill him without asking questions.”