While the recent riots slip into the memory, discussion of how to deal with the offenders continues. Indeed only this week the question was raised on Radio 4’s Moral Maze.
A prominent argument is that, crime for crime, we are punishing rioters more heavily than would normally be the case. But are there particular reasons which justify this?
Some would say that we need to give people an object lesson and that harsh sentences will drive the message home. I rely on memory here, but I recall that the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 were only checked by the use of substantial prison sentences.
Another view is that civil disorder can spread very quickly and that the maintenance of order is the first imperative – without which nothing else is possible. This for example was the reason why the Catholic Herald, after much soul-searching, decided to support Franco and the National Front in the Spanish Civil War. It believed that the heavily left wing Popular Front was simply unable to restore and maintain order. Indeed many of its internal factions were committed to disorder as an objective. I am, of course parti pris here because my late father was editor at the time.
But one aspect does not seem to have been considered. It came to me when I found myself describing the riots as diabolical. And I realised that I was giving the description a real meaning which went beyond the metaphorical.
I mused on this until suddenly the phrase “Evil, be thou my good” popped into my mind. You will recognise this from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book 4, if you want to look it up). It is the Devil speaking.
Most crimes and evil acts seek an objective beyond themselves. Thus we do not steal for the sake of stealing but to benefit from the good of the items we steal. We do not lie because our aim is deceit, we lie because of the good that deceit will bring us – and so on. But in the riots many people were apparently doing evil for its own sake. They took pleasure in its exercise deliberately. They cried out, with Milton’s Devil “Evil, be thou my good.”
Many of the actions which took place were not extremely grave: the breaking of a window here, the receiving of stolen goods there. Far more serious crimes are committed every hour of the day. But, to the extent that they share the quality of evil for evil’s own sake, they need to be marked with a unique disapproval. Deep within the public’s unconsciousness lies an instinctive awareness that the Devil is abroad.
My title is of course pinched from Denis Wheatley’s 1934 novel. I knew Wheatley slightly towards the end of his life. He always spoke with interest on the subject of the occult. And he had no doubts about the dangers of the Devil and his servants.
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You may be interested in the Moral Maze programme and also the BBC 2 Horizon programme Are you good or evil?, on Wednesday evening. They should both be available via the internet. Interestingly, in the Horizon programme, a major researcher discovers that he had the genetic profile of a psychopath, being related to the notorious Lizzie Borden who
…………………….took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks,
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
I wonder what your reflections on the riots have been?