Rape provokes strong opinions. Islam has no concept of rape, only zina (fornication or adultery), and if a woman is raped she is often killed. The West is more enlightened, although the view that if a woman is less than pure or less than sober she is asking for it, is sadly all too common. At the other extreme, all men are potential rapists, and "something must be done" about the low conviction rates ( 6.5% in the UK). Theodore Darlymple addresses this last point in a piece for the Social Affairs Unit. As he once did with a headline, "Why Intellectuals Like Genocide", so here with his choice of crime, Dalrymple likes to startle the reader before proceeding to a sober, measured argument:
It is curious how, when it comes to rape, the liberal press, and presumably liberals themselves, suddenly appreciate the value of punishment. They do not say of rape that we must understand the causes of rape before we punish it; that we must understand how men develop into rapists before we lock them away, preferably for a long time; that prison does not work. It is as if, when speaking of rape, it suddenly becomes time to put away childish things, and (to change the metaphor slightly) to talk the only kind of language that rapists understand.
They quiver with outrage when they learn that the clear-up rate for rape cases is only 6.5 per cent, though this in fact is very similar to the clear-up rate of all crimes. They are appalled at cases where rapists are left free to commit more of their crimes because of police and Crown Prosecution Service incompetence, which is itself the natural result of the policy of successive governments. But it is important for their self-respect as liberals that their outrage should not be generalised, that they should not let it spill over into consideration of other categories of crime, where the same bureaucratic levity and frivolity is likewise demonstrated. For, as every decent person knows, there are far too many prisoners in this country already, and prison does not work.
Thus, in an opinion piece about "the national disgrace" that "rape almost always goes unpunished" in The Guardian for 15 April, the writer Libby Brooks concludes:
This is Britain in the spring of 2009. We are not some UN-designated failed state. We have a criminal justice system that works reasonably effectively for pretty much everyone else.
I will pass over the question of the rate at which we are progressing towards failed-state status (it is important not to exaggerate); but let us just examine the assertion that the criminal justice system works reasonably well for everyone else.
The last time I looked up the figures, the official clear-up rate for domestic burglaries was about one in 12. (Even this is an overestimate, because of unreported burglaries, and because of cases "taken into consideration", a category ripe for statistical manipulation in favour of the police).
The imprisonment rate of convicted burglars was about one in 13. This means that one in 156 domestic burglaries ended in a prison sentence. The average prison sentence is 6 months (which means prisoners actually serve 3 months); let us, for the sake of argument, assume that convicted burglars get, on average, double the average prison sentence, that is to say 12 months, of which they serve 6 months, or 180 days.
Thus, the average cost to a burglar of a domestic burglary is approximately 1 day in prison. The question to be asked, then, is not why there are so many burglaries, but so few. My point at the moment, however, is that the criminal justice system can hardly be said to serve the burgled community very well, though it serves the burgling community very well.
The Guardian for the same date carried a small news item about the widower of Jane Goody, Jack Tweed, who was sentenced to prison for having assaulted a taxi driver. I reproduce it in full:
Jack Tweed, husband of Jane Goody, who died of cancer last month, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail yesterday for an assault on a taxi driver after a drinking binge in May last year. Tweed, 21, was found guilty at Epping magistrates' court last month. The court heard how he grabbed taxi driver Stephen Wilkins round the throat and threatened to stab him while he was driving. The 21-year-old also attempted to apply the handbrake while the car was moving, the court heard. It was the second time in six months that Tweed had been found guilty of assault.
It can hardly be said, then, that Tweed was a contrite soul, who had learnt his lesson after the previous assault for which he was convicted (epidemiologically unlikely to have been the first assault he had committed, of course).
It cannot be said, either, that what he did was the kind of thing that anyone might do on the spur of the moment, from understandably overwhelming passion. Nor, I think, is it very likely that the taxi driver considered the six (not twelve) weeks that Tweed would spend in prison sufficient recompense for what he, Tweed, had done, or for what he had made the taxi driver suffer. As for the alcohol, it should not be regarded as in the slightest a mitigating circumstance, rather the reverse.
The driver and other drivers like him could hardly conclude from the sentence passed on Tweed that the state was deeply concerned for their safety or well-being. It is unlikely, also, that The Guardian, which passed no comment on the sentence, was deeply concerned either: for are not taxi-drivers as a whole the kind of people who read the Daily Mail and frequently express the most reactionary ideas? They are certainly not a designated oppressed group, and therefore it is not of any great importance that crimes against them are inadequately repressed and thereby prevented.
Nevertheless, the logic of pursuing and severely repressing crimes such as that committed by Tweed is exactly the same as that of pursuing and severely repressing rapists.
If anyone were to write that he thought that rapists should not be locked up because they have had a difficult childhood, have psychological problems and aberrant personalities, including a tendency to take drugs and too much alcohol, and because prison does not work as evidenced by the fact that they often commit the same sorts of crimes on release, he would be (rightly) regarded as a moral idiot. Yet the very same arguments are trotted out, with every appearance of convincing the people who trot them out of their own moral superiority over those who do not believe them, with regard to the kinds of crimes that make the lives of many old people in this country (to take only one example) a torment.
This is moral frivolity of a very high – or low – order. And it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that it has been predominant in this country for decades.
I would add that in fact Guardian readers indirectly excuse rape - by failing to condemn Islam, which allows it. Otherwise Dalrymple is quite right.