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Home > Culture and Society

It's what anyone of us would have done, right?

As Tony Martin showed us, sometimes in life you're left with no choice but to shoot someone in the back with a pump action shotgun. That's just the way it is.

1 August 2003

It's like that episode of The Simpsons. Chief Wiggum alarms 742 Evergreen Terrace by setting up an elaborate series of threads connected to a Krusty doll. He explains to Homer:"'Now Sideshow Bob can't get in without me knowing. And once a man is in your home, anything you do to him is nice and legal."

One joke which follows is Homer inviting Ned Flanders round in order to beat him with a bat. But this obscures the joke in Wiggum's explanation. Once again, the policeman is repeating Bar Lore as Criminal Law. You can't, say, defraud someone once he's in your home. Or blackmail him. Or shoot him in the back with an illegal pump-action shotgun. That's not 'nice and legal'.

This doesn't seem to be understood by the listeners to the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. Like Lt. Hiroo Onada, who was still fighting WW2 in 1974, they seem to think Sir Jimmy Young is still their host and (re)act accordingly. Vine had a Tory Lord on to explain that after the Terrible Events of Tony Martin, burglary is still actually illegal, whatever the Daily Mail might imply.

Young's people were incandescent.

'What His Lordship seems to have forgotten,' ranted one rabid bint, 'is that an Englishman's home is his castle.' What *she* seems to have forgotten is that His Lordship's home actually is a castle and that her fellow ranters were essentially reiterating the Wiggum view of justice. And it wasn't just the senile who were making a hero out of Mad Tony. MPs, broadcasters, newspapers: never has a week gone by with so many people arguing that murder be made nice and legal.

There are a few different arguments which say you ought to be able to spray intruders with gunfire. Most are totally specious. The chief one seems to be that because a burglar is in the wrong once he enters your property, killing him stops being in the wrong as well. This kind of relativist thinking has no place in a modern legal system - 'legal' meaning one not based around primitive claptrap. There is a reason why self-defence is an alibi, while, say, murdering someone who is blackmailing your wife is not. Two wrongs, it turns out, do not make a right.

Another argument has it that the world is going to heck in a handbasket, that crime is everywhere and the best thing any sane man can do is arm himself to the teeth. This way America lies. Barry Glassner's 'The Culture of Fear' explains how sensationalist journalism results in people overestimating certain dangers while remaining oblivious to those dangers that don't make for juicy copy. He's talking about America, but open the Daily Express or the Mail or the Sun and count the Terror Points on every page. It's, well, terrifying.

And one other specious argument is largely based around the gyppos and pikies getting their come-uppance. Let's pass over that.

The only argument which really makes any sense is one where Martin is a desperate man who the police ignored. (Which is a shame: they might have found his gun.) We're all aware that bobbies are thinner on the ground, so what are we to do? There's something very convincing about the idea of people looking after themselves once law and order weaken. All societies need protection, after all, or it's a free-for-all.

The problem is that we'll never agree on who should provide that protection. Some people feel safe with the Guardian Angel vigilantes, some with Robin Hood, some with the IRA. None of these models enjoys universal support. And any group which provides protection is going to grow unless it's delineated, identified and controlled by everyone in the community (which is how the police is meant to work). Once it grows, we've got the Mafia. Which is worse than a free-for-all.

And in fact, a free-for-all is *exactly* what we have in the case of Tony Martin. Either Martin killed Fred Barras because he liked shooting guns (he bought the pump-action shotgun 'for fun', so not to worry, his friend said) - or he did it because Barras was a burglar. If the latter, then in the free-for-all, the punishment for burglary has become the death penalty. And the judge and jury is Tony Martin. And this is where the buck should stop, according to his champions, who responded to his shootings with a 'no, no: you carry on, Tony.'

The jury saw it differently. Self-defence, they thought, doesn't apply when you've shot your potential assailant in the back. Self-defence works because we've decided to place a value on life. Shooting a fleeing burglar remains a crime, not on order to give the Burglars a Charter, but because property is not placed on an equal footing with life.

Another man who's decided his judgment is more important than that of the courts is Piers Morgan. Despite the fact that the Press Complaints Commission Code tries to stop newspapers showering criminals with money, Piers has decided that shouldn't apply. "The way the British justice system has treated Mr Martin is frankly appalling," he tells us - i.e. 'I'll be the judge of that.'

What TFT would like to see is the judge being the judge of that a little more often. Not vigilantes, or newspaper editors, or crazy gun-nuts, or anyone else. We'd like to see an even-handed treatment where Tony Martin, and the burglars Fred Barras and Brendan Fearon are all treated like criminals, because they have all committed crimes.

And even if the Norfolk police are cack-handed, even if the Victims Charter does create absurdities from which criminals themselves benefit, even if self-defence is hard to prove without witnesses, what is the solution to all of this?

If The Mirror really cared, it could investigate these processes rather than giving out 100,000 to the man who tried to solve these problems by opening fire. The solution is not more pump-action shotguns. Now there's something *really* scary in the papers.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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