Judge shows mercy as ‘have a go’ heroes take the spotlight

With the release of Munir Hussain on a ‘mercy’ judgment, the criminal law relating to self defence has once more been thrown into controversy. Hussein had been convicted of assaulting an intruder, Walid Salem, who had threatened Hussain’s family and tied them up after intrusion into their home. Hussain later went on to chase Salem and strike him so hard with a cricket bat that it shattered the bat, and caused Salem serious brain damage. There was a great deal of media attention around the case, heightened by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson’s comments that those prepared to take such risks to apprehend intruders are what makes society ‘worthwhile’. The media hysteria around the case has argued for total support for the actions taken by Hussain, believing the criminal law should not afford any rights to the intruder. Yet do these sorts of media campaigns fuel vigilantism? Or do they truly encourage us to be good citizens and ‘heroes’ worthy of respect?

As the law stands, there is an aim for a balance for rights of intruders to be matched by rights of the victim. Victims are allowed to use reasonable force to protect themselves against intruders and will have a defence if they are acting instinctively in the ‘heat of the moment’. The law doesn’t protect those who lie in wait to prey on intruders, or attack intruders who are fleeing and pose no immediate threat of harm. This was the case with Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenager who was fleeing the scene of the crime. At the time, the media caused a stir in defence of Martin, arguing that it was his home and his right to act as he did.

Yet if the defence had been given to Martin, then surely it would excuse all manner of callousness. Fundamentally, at the root of this is not so much the right to self defence, which is supported by the law, but whether we can in our catharsis take it upon ourselves to seriously harm – or even kill – intruders. Many people feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of crime, and this feeling is accentuated by the media’s constant coverage of crime stories. Thus when the figure of the ‘have a go’ hero is portrayed in the media, it can gain much support from the public. However this cannot give rise to giving people a right to take the law into their own hands through use of repressive violence.

Fundamentally, intruders do have rights, and it is correct that they do so. If an intruder has stolen an item, how can serious harm or even death be equated with this material possession? To give free rein to the victim of the crime to act violently, we neglect the fact that, regardless of their fault, the intruder is a human being too. We negate looking into their life story, of how or why they have turned to crime, of understanding where things have taken a turn for the worst. In the process, by ridding an intruder of their rights not to be killed or harmed, we are effectively saying that they are irredeemable and that they can never change or be rehabilitated back into society. This, in my view, is to render intruders unworthy to exist, when we should in fact seek to provide people with the second chance to live within society.

It is not to say however, that those who conduct acts like citizens arrests or defend themselves reasonably in the face of intruders are not worthy of respect, but to enshrine in law absolute rights to the citizen and no rights to the intruder is to allow callous acts, which in Martin’s case and arguably in Hussein’s case are neither heroic or amiable. Instead, we should be encouraging people to be active citizens. However this shouldn’t just be for stopping criminality, it should also be for fighting the economic and cultural conditions which drive many to crime in the first place. We should all be seeking to improve society, improve the opportunities people have, and to make sure that resources are distributed so that the conditions which breed crime are prevented.

Ultimately, using Law and Police to try and create or enforce rights isn’t going to improve society or stop crime from taking place. The task of transforming society cannot simply be left to the Law, Police or the would-be heroes to try and make society better; it should be a process that everyone is actively engaged in.

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