The tragic death of Richard Mannington Bowes, who was attacked by rioters on last week, raises a difficult question. Should bystanders intervene when they see crime (or should I say criminality?) on our streets?
It's one of those pub questions.
Friend: If someone was getting beaten up would you help them?
You: Yeah of course.
Friend: Even if you didn't know them?
Friend: What if there were three of them?
You: Hmmm...they're blokes yeah?
You: How big are they?
Friend: One of them's quite big but two of them are about 14
You: Is there anyone else around?
You: Yeah I'd probably have a go.
Friend: Okay, but what if there were...
The problem is we'd all like to intervene if someone was getting beaten up. But we're just not hardwired to do so, both genetically and culturally.
As humans we're designed to make decisions based on self preservation. Chances are you wouldn't be reading this if your ancestors, going back thousands of generations, hadn't been experts at minimising risk, making decisions that kept them alive long enough to pass down their genes to the next generation.
From this base of natural conservatism we are then brought up to be as risk averse as possible. Teenagers shouldn't go outside in case they get run over or beaten up. Parents should disinfect their kitchens to rival the hygiene standards of the local neonatal ward and employees are encouraged to go on health and safety training days to learn how not to put a cup of tea on a computer monitor (thank god for the advent of flat screens).
But of course it works. The more alert we are to risks the easier it is to protect ourselves against them. Smoking causes cancer. Great I won't smoke. Fatty foods increase the risk of heart disease. Okay cancel the battered mars bar then. It's entirely logical to be risk averse.
And that's the problem. 'Have a go heroes' are not being logical. They are exposing themselves to huge risks, as the case of Richard Mannington Bowes illustrates. It's rational and entirely consistent with almost every decision you've ever made not to intervene.
So as a politician what do you say to these incredibly brave people, who risk life and limb to protect others? Well as Boris Johnson will testify it's very difficult.
One of the planks of Boris' campaign was to encourage 'passive citizens' to become 'active'. He wanted bystanders to help their fellow citizens, and backed people to 'take a risk', saying the chances of getting stabbed were 'microscopic'.
And to be fair to Boris he put actions behind those words. In 2009 he scared off a bunch of muggers trying to assault a woman in Camden.
However, Boris subsequently (perhaps because of worries he might encourage an inappropriate intervention) told the media that he would tell his own children to 'look after themselves first' if put in such a position.
So going into the riots in London there was a bit of an inconsistent message to the would-be hero. I mean should you go for it or not? Responding to the death of Richard Mannington Bowes Boris declared that he was 'an example to everyone' so I guess the message for next time is yes - you should have gone for it.
But unfortunately for Boris, and anyone who happens to be in trouble, the next time something like this happens most people won't go for it, they won't be a hero and they won't change their citizen status to 'active'. A report into the public's response to crime by Reform in 2008 concluded that people in the UK were the least likely in Europe to intervene when a crime was taking place and after the tragic events in Ealing last week I don't see that changing anytime soon. It's just not worth the risk.
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