From attacking burglars to jumping red lights, we are increasingly taking the law into our own hands. But can this be morally justified?by Nigel Warburton / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Pop star Myleene Klass: a “have-a-go hero”?
It’s one thing to break a law, quite another to believe you’ve done the right thing in breaking it. Take millionaire businessman Munir Hussain and his brother Tokeer, who in September 2008 pursued a knife-wielding intruder, Walid Salem, from their home in High Wycombe. They caught him and beat his head with a cricket bat. Salem’s resulting brain damage saw him rendered unfit to be prosecuted for his crime. While recognising their right to proportionate self-defence, the judge imprisoned the Hussains in December 2009, on grounds of excessive violence. “If persons were permitted to take the law into their own hands and inflict their own instant and violent punishment on an apprehended offender rather than letting justice take its course,” he pronounced, “then the rule of law and our system of criminal justice, which are the hallmarks of a civilised society, would collapse.” The Hussains, however, argued they acted under extreme provocation—the intruder and his accomplices tied up and threatened Munir’s family. In January, Munir Hussain’s sentence was suspended on appeal and he was freed.
Cases of retaliation against intruders are rarer than you might think: a report in 2005 found just 11 prosecutions in 15 years. But those who do take the law into their own hands often receive strong support from the public and the media—Tony Martin, for instance, who in 1999 was jailed for shooting to death an intruder on his Norfolk farm. Most recently, pop star Myleene Klass brandished a kitchen knife at people lurking in her garden; she was told off by police but not charged. She has since said she would “do it again.” Tory home affairs spokesman Chris Grayling has suggested the law should be changed to allow more “have-a-go heroes.” After Hussain was freed, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson said that victims should be encouraged to intervene and that such acts of bravery “make our society worthwhile.”
Lawlessness is evident elsewhere, too. A cyclist in central London powers through a red light, zigzags between oncoming vehicles, and disappears into the traffic, leaving car drivers raging in his wake. Yet one of the drivers is seen texting as he speeds off. Meanwhile, a student downloads music files from illegal file-sharing sites. All of these examples point to a new age of social lawlessness, in which people break the law unashamedly and even attempt to justify…