A Modern Witch Trial

Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal, Spring 2009

Men may be created equal, but not all murders are equal. Some are quickly forgotten, except by those immediately affected by them, while others–by no means always political assassinations–have a lasting political impact. Among the politically significant kind was the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man, in a London suburb on the evening of April 22, 1993. Five or six white youths set upon Lawrence and a friend, Duwayne Brooks. One of the attackers supposedly shouted, “What, what, nigger?” immediately before Lawrence was stabbed to death. Brooks managed to evade the attackers, who ran away.

Despite considerable circumstantial evidence against several suspects, the perpetrators escaped conviction. The police investigation into the murder was a model of incompetence of the kind that every Briton now expects of our boys in blue. Over the investigation there also hung a pall of suspected corruption, for one suspect was the son of a rich drug trafficker who, on a previous occasion when his son stood accused of a stabbing, had tried (unsuccessfully) to bribe and threaten the victim into altering his evidence.

But the Lawrence murder took on a wide social significance because of its racial overtones. The botched investigation became a cause célèbre–the presumption being that racism alone could explain the police’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice–and the government launched an official inquiry to “identify the lessons to be learned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes.” There followed a festival of political and emotional correctness the likes of which have rarely been equaled. It would be impossible, at less than book length, to plumb the depths of intellectual confusion and moral cowardice to which the inquiry plunged. In 1999, it released a report of its findings that won almost universal praise despite its risible shortcomings.

This year, on the tenth anniversary of the report, the press and professional criminologists are celebrating it for, as one put it, bringing about a “paradigm shift” in the sensitivities of British police about “diversity”–police now think about race all the time, it seems. The report’s real effect, however, was to demoralize further an already demoralized police force, which, immediately after the report appeared, retreated from stopping or searching people behaving suspiciously and watched street robberies increase 50 percent.

Perhaps the fact that the inquiry was open to the public had something to do with the nature of the resulting report. The public gallery regularly overflowed with activists and extremists, who did not hesitate to jeer and mock the witnesses with whom they disagreed; the head of the inquiry, Sir William Macpherson, rarely admonished these spectators, thus creating an officially sanctioned atmosphere of intimidation. {snip}

The report’s contention was that the mishandled Lawrence case illustrated the “institutional racism” of the London police force. Poor Sir William tied himself in knots trying to explain the notion of institutional racism, relying in part on that great moral authority on race relations, Stokely Carmichael, the onetime “prime minister” of the Black Panthers. As Macpherson admitted, he could point to no actual instance of racist behavior by the officers involved in the case, though evidence of incompetence and delay was abundant. But if he had concluded from the lack of evidence of racist behavior that the police were not racist, he doubtless would have become an object of execration by all the people who think the right thoughts. Thus Macpherson’s redefinition of racism: “Failure to adjust policies and methods to meet the needs of policing a multi-racial society can occur simply because police officers may mistakenly believe that it is legitimate to be ‘colour-blind’ in both individual and team response to the management and investigation of racist crimes.”

On the very next page, however, Sir William quoted approvingly the assertion of an association of black police officers: “Institutional racism leads officers to act, albeit unconsciously, and for the most part unintentionally, and treat others differently because of their ethnicity or culture.” In other words, if you treat people the same, you are racist; but if you treat them differently, you are racist. It is clear that we are here in the realm not of the rule of law but of the Malleus Maleficarum, and that Macpherson is acting not as judge but as witchfinder-general.

The evidence of institutional racism that Macpherson uncovered would be laughable, had the liberal press not taken it so seriously. {snip}

Further evidence, in Sir William’s view, was that some of the detectives refused to accept that the Lawrence murder was “wholly racist,” though none denied at least a racist element. Of course, since no one had actually been convicted of the murder, the murderer’s motive could not be known for certain. And even if the suspects–a violent group, certainly–were indeed the culprits, was racism the sole, or even primary, cause of their violence? One suspect–David Norris, the drug trafficker’s son–was almost certainly guilty of that earlier stabbing in which his father became illegally involved, as the report observed. But there the victim was white. Norris and two other suspects in the Lawrence murder had also been suspects in another assault, this one on two brothers, both white. In both instances, Norris got off because of incompetent prosecutions.

Macpherson did not draw the obvious inference, and if he did, the liberal intelligentsia would not have applauded.

{snip}

Among the report’s many pernicious recommendations was the following: “The definition of a racist incident should be any incident which is perceived as racist by the victim or any other person.” Nothing could be better designed to destroy the possibility of easy–dare I say normal–relations among people of different races. For the notion that racism is so pervasive and institutionalized that it is everywhere, even where it appears not to be, induces in the susceptible a paranoid state of mind, which then finds racism in every possible situation, in every remark, in every suggestion, in every gesture and expression. It is a charge against which there is no defense.

Two incidents in my clinical experience illustrate this nonfalsifiability. In the first, the lawyers for a black defendant asked me to appraise his fitness to plead. The defendant faced charges of assaulting another black man, out of the blue, with an iron bar. The man was obviously paranoid, his speech rambling and incoherent; his lawyers could obtain no sensible instructions from him. I argued that he was unfit to plead. Whereupon the man’s sister denounced me as a racist: I had reached my conclusions, she charged, only because her brother was black. Her 15-year-old daughter started to describe to me her frequent difficulties in understanding her uncle, only to be told to shut up by her mother. The lawyers had been unable to obtain instructions from the defendant only because they were white, the sister persisted. Give her brother black lawyers, and he would be perfectly reasonable. Of course, if I had said that he was fit to plead, she could have claimed with equal justice (which is none) that I came to that conclusion only because he was black.

The second case, far more serious, ended in a man’s death; the blame was partly mine. A black man in his mid-twenties arrived at our hospital with severely cut wrists. He was nearly exsanguinated and needed a large blood transfusion; his tendons also needed an operation to repair. By all accounts, he had been a perfectly normal man, happily employed, a few weeks before, but suddenly he had stopped eating and become a recluse, barricading himself in his house until police and family broke in to reach him. His suicide attempt was not one of those frivolous gestures with which our hospitals are all too familiar. If ever a man meant to kill himself, this man did.

His mother was by his bedside. I told her that her son should remain in the hospital for treatment (you’d hardly have to be a doctor to realize this). At first she was perfectly agreeable; but then a friend of the young man, himself young and black, arrived and instantly accused me of racism for my supposed desire to lock the patient up. I tried to reason with this friend, but he became agitated and aggressive, even menacing. Whether from conviction or because she, too, felt intimidated, the mother then sided with the friend and started to say that I was racist in wishing to detain her son.

I could have insisted on the powers granted to me by law–asking a court to have social services replace the mother as the patient’s nearest relative for the legal purpose of keeping him in treatment. But I did not fancy the process: the young friend had threatened to bring reinforcements, and a riot might have ensued in the hospital. Instead, I agreed to the demand that I let the patient go home. The two said that they would look after him, and I made them sign a paper (of no legal worth) acknowledging that I had warned them of the possible consequences.

This piece of paper they screwed up into a ball and threw away immediately outside the ward, where I found it later. I had made copies, and it was one of these that I sent to the coroner when, six weeks later, the young man gassed himself to death with car exhaust. The notion of ubiquitous, institutionalized racism resulted in his death; and I resolved that it would never intimidate me again.

When I think of Macpherson’s feeble mental pirouettes, I turn for relief to an official 1854 report into some abuses committed in Birmingham Borough Prison, where I myself worked a century and a half later. Every day, as I entered, I passed an oak notice board, on which one could read, displayed in gold lettering, the names of past governors of the prison. The second on the list was Lieutenant William Austin of the Royal Navy, whose cruelties–among those of other prison officials, including its doctor–a commission of inquiry had investigated.

To read the commission’s report after Macpherson’s is to enter a different world, one in which words mean what they appear to mean, the integrity of the commissioners is self-evident, facts count more than feelings, and conclusions follow from the evidence. In fact, to read the commission’s report after Macpherson’s is to experience a powerful sense of moral and intellectual progress–at least among the writers of official reports–but in the wrong temporal direction, alas. The prose of the commissioners, one of them a doctor, is clear, vigorous, and without the evasions and contradictions of Macpherson’s writing. They write like men who know they are doing a good job well.

{snip}

The [commission’s] conclusion reflected a proper and transparently honest sifting of the evidence. The Macpherson report did not. Since 1854, prison conditions have improved. Since 1999, race relations have not.

[Editor’s Note: Stephen W. Webster’s article “Whites As Kulaks” is a review of Frank Ellis’s book, The Macpherson Report; ‘Anti-racist’ Hysteria and the Sovietization of the United Kingdom. It can be read here.]

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