Celebrity news from the United Kingdom: In April, Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist and author of The Female Eunuch, was leaving her house in East Anglia, when a young woman accosted her, forced her back inside, tied her up, smashed her glasses, and then set about demolishing her ornaments with a poker.
A couple of weeks before that, the 85-year-old mother of Phil Collins, the well-known rock star, was punched in the ribs, the back, and the head on a West London street, before her companion was robbed. "That's what you have to expect these days," she said, philosophically.
Anthea Turner, the host of Britain's top-rated National Lottery TV show, went to see the West End revival of Grease with a friend. They were spotted at the theatre by a young man who followed them out and, while their car was stuck in traffic, forced his way in and wrenched a diamond-encrusted Rolex off the friend's wrist.
A week before that, the 94-year-old mother of Ridley Scott, the director of Alien and other Hollywood hits, was beaten and robbed by two men who broke into her home and threatened to kill her.
Former Bond girl Britt Ekland had her jewelry torn from her arms outside a shop in Chelsea; Formula One Grand Prix racing tycoon and Tony Blair confidante Bernie Ecclestone was punched and kicked by his assailants as they stole his wife's ring; network TV chief Michael Green was slashed in the face by thugs outside his Mayfair home; gourmet chef to the stars Anton Mosimann was punched in the head outside his house in Kensington....
Rita Simmonds isn't a celebrity but, fortunately, she happened to be living next door to one when a gang broke into her home in upscale Cumberland Terrace, a private road near Regent's Park. Tom Cruise heard her screams and bounded to the rescue, chasing off the attackers for 300 yards, though failing to prevent them from reaching their getaway car and escaping with two jewelry items worth around $140,000.
It's just as well Tom failed to catch up with the gang. Otherwise, the ensuing altercation might have resulted in the diminutive star being prosecuted for assault. In Britain, criminals, police, and magistrates are united in regarding any resistance by the victim as bad form. The most they'll tolerate is "proportionate response"--and, as these thugs had been beating up a defenseless woman and posed no threat to Tom Cruise, the Metropolitan Police would have regarded Tom's actions as highly objectionable. "Proportionate response" from the beleaguered British property owner's point of view, is a bit like a courtly duel where the rules are set by one side: "Ah," says the victim of a late-night break-in, "I see you have brought a blunt instrument. Forgive me for unsheathing my bread knife. My mistake, old boy. Would you mind giving me a sporting chance to retrieve my cricket bat from under the bed before clubbing me to a pulp, there's a good chap?"
No wonder, even as they're being pounded senseless, many British crime victims are worrying about potential liability. A few months ago, Shirley Best, owner of the Rolander Fashion boutique whose clients include the daughter of the Princess Royal, was ironing some garments when two youths broke in. They pressed the hot iron into her side and stole her watch, leaving her badly burnt. "I was frightened to defend myself," said Miss Best. "I thought if I did anything I would be arrested."
And who can blame her? Shortly before the attack, she'd been reading about Tony Martin, a Norfolk farmer whose home had been broken into and who had responded by shooting and killing the teenage burglar. He was charged with murder. In April, he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment--for defending himself against a career criminal in an area where the police are far away and reluctant to have their sleep disturbed. In the British Commonwealth, the approach to policing is summed up by the motto of Her Majesty's most glamorous constabulary: The Mounties always get their man--i.e., leave it to us. But these days in the British police, when they can't get their man, they'll get you instead: Frankly, that's a lot easier, as poor Mr. Martin discovered.
Norfolk is a remote rural corner of England. It ought to be as peaceful and crime-free as my remote rural corner of New England. But it isn't. Old impressions die hard: Americans still think of Britain as a low-crime country. Conversely, the British think of America as a high-crime country. But neither impression is true. The overall crime rate in England and Wales is 60 percent higher than that in the United States. True, in America you're more likely to be shot to death. On the other hand, in England you're more likely to be strangled to death. But in both cases, the statistical likelihood of being murdered at all is remote, especially if you steer clear of the drug trade. When it comes to anything else, though--burglary, auto theft, armed robbery, violent assault, rape--the crime rate reaches deep into British society in ways most Americans would find virtually inconceivable.
I cite those celebrity assaults not because celebrities are more prone to wind up as crime victims than anyone else, but only because the measure of a civilized society is how easily you can insulate yourself from its snarling underclass. In America, if you can make it out of some of the loonier cities, it's a piece of cake, relatively speaking. In Britain, if even a rock star or TV supremo can't insulate himself, nobody can. In any society, criminals prey on the weak and vulnerable. It's the peculiar genius of government policy to have ensured that in British society everyone is weak and vulnerable --from Norfolk farmers to Tom Cruise's neighbor.
And that's where America is headed if those million marching moms make any headway in Washington: Less guns = more crime. And more vulnerability. And a million more moms being burgled, and assaulted, and raped. I like hunting, but if that were the only thing at stake with guns, I guess I could learn to live without it. But I'm opposed to gun control because I don't see why my neighbors in New Hampshire should have to live the way, say, my sister-in-law does--in a comfortable manor house in a prosperous part of rural England, lying awake at night listening to yobbo gangs drive up, park their vans, and test her doors and windows before figuring out that the little old lady down the lane's a softer touch.
Between the introduction of pistol permits in 1903 and the banning of handguns after the Dunblane massacre in 1996, Britain has had a century of incremental gun control--"sensible measures that all reasonable people can agree on." And what's the result? Even when you factor in America's nutcake jurisdictions with the crackhead mayors, the overall crime rate in England and Wales is higher than in all 50 states, even though over there they have more policemen per capita than in the U.S., on vastly higher rates of pay installing more video surveillance cameras than anywhere else in the Western world. Robbery, sex crimes, and violence against the person are higher in England and Wales; property crime is twice as high; vehicle theft is higher still; the British are 2.3 times more likely than Americans to be assaulted, and three times more likely to be violently assaulted. Between 1973 and 1992, burglary rates in the U.S. fell by half. In Britain, not even the Home Office's disreputable reporting methods (if a burglar steals from 15 different apartments in one building, it counts as a single crime) can conceal the remorseless rise: Britons are now more than twice as likely as Americans to be mugged; two-thirds will have their property broken into at some time in their lives. Even more revealing is the divergent character between U.K. and U.S. property crime: In America, just over 10 percent of all burglaries are "hot burglaries"--committed while the owners are present; in Britain, it's over half. Because of insurance-required alarm systems, the average thief increasingly concludes that it's easier to break in while you're on the premises. Your home-security system may conceivably make your home more safe, but it makes you less so.
Conversely, up here in the New Hampshire second congressional district, there are few laser security systems and lots of guns. Our murder rate is much lower than Britain's and our property crime is virtually insignificant. Anyone want to make a connection? Villains are expert calculators of risk, and the likelihood of walking away uninjured with an $80 television set is too remote. In New Hampshire, a citizen's right to defend himself deters crime; in Britain, the state-inflicted impotence of the homeowner actively encourages it. Just as becoming a drug baron is a rational career move in Colombia, so too is becoming a violent burglar in the United Kingdom. The chances that the state will seriously impede your progress are insignificant.
Now I'm Canadian, so, as you might expect, the Second Amendment doesn't mean much to me. I think it's more basic than that. Privately owned firearms symbolize the essential difference between your great republic and the countries you left behind. In the U.S., power resides with "we, the people" and is leased ever more sparingly up through town, county, state, and federal government. In Britain and Canada, power resides with the Crown and is graciously devolved down in limited doses. To a north country Yankee it's self-evident that, when a burglar breaks into your home, you should have the right to shoot him--indeed, not just the right, but the responsibility, as a freeborn citizen, to uphold the integrity of your property. But in Britain and most other parts of the Western world, the state reserves that right to itself, even though at the time the ne'er-do-well shows up in your bedroom you're on the scene and Constable Plod isn't: He's some miles distant, asleep in his bed, and with his answering machine on referring you to central dispatch God knows where.
These days it's standard to bemoan the "dependency culture" of state welfare, but Britain's law-and-order "dependency culture" is even more enfeebling. What was it the police and courts resented about that Norfolk farmer? That he "took the law into his own hands"? But in a responsible participatory democracy, the law ought to be in our hands. The problem with Britain is that the police force is now one of the most notable surviving examples of a pre-Thatcher, bloated, incompetent, unproductive, overpaid, closed-shop state monopoly. They're about as open to constructive suggestions as the country's Communist mineworkers' union was 20 years ago, and the control-freak tendencies of all British political parties ensure that the country's bloated, expensive county and multi-county forces are inviolable.
The Conservatives' big mistake between 1979 and 1997 was an almost willfully obtuse failure to understand that giving citizens more personal responsibility isn't something that extends just to their income and consumer choices; it also applies to their communities and their policing arrangements. If you have one without the other, you end up with modem Britain: a materially prosperous society in which the sense of frustration and impotence is palpable, and you're forced to live with a level of endless property crime most Americans would regard as unacceptable.
We know Bill Clinton's latest favorite statistic--that 12 "kids" a day die from gun violence--is bunk: Five-sixths of those 11.569 grade-school moppets are aged between 15 and 19, and many of them have had the misfortune to become involved in gangs, convenience-store hold-ups, and drug deals, which, alas, have a tendency to go awry. If more crack deals passed off peacefully, that "child" death rate could be reduced by three-quarters. But away from those dark fringes of society, Americans live lives blessedly untouched by most forms of crime--at least when compared with supposedly more civilized countries like Britain. That's something those million marching moms should consider, if only because in a gun-free America women--and the elderly and gays and all manner of other fashionable victim groups--will be bearing the brunt of a much higher proportion of violent crime than they do today. Ask Phil Collins or Ridley Scott or Germaine Greet.
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