Manhattan Institute

Call It a Crime

A recent murder reveals the distorted language employed by British police.

The incompetent defeatism of the British police is often revealed after a serious crime has occurred. They appear not to understand fully the implications of their public statements.

A young man in Manchester, still unidentified, recently died after being stabbed repeatedly in the leg by another young man, who then escaped in a car. The policeman in charge of the investigation made a public statement, in which he said, among other things, “This is an incredibly tragic set of circumstances which has resulted in a young man losing his life . . . Such senseless acts of violence have devastating effects on families and cannot be tolerated.”

Apart from the fact that the victim died, no evidence is adduced as to why the circumstances should be described as tragic rather than as, say, sordid, evil, or even idiotic. Far worse, however, is the implication that it was the supposed senselessness of the violent act and the assumed effect it had on the family that made it intolerable. In other words, it was not intolerable merely because people may not stab one another to death; if the perpetrator had a good reason to stab the victim, and if the family were pleased to be rid of the deceased (as is sometimes the case, the family even going so far as to pay for his removal), the act of violence would have been tolerable.

In fact, the minimal evidence released to date suggests a premediated crime, not a senseless act. The perpetrator, after all, had a car at his disposal for his getaway. It was probably not a random attack; it was more likely an act of revenge for some slight or other, or in continuation of some feud or dispute. These reasons are no excuse, and probably not even a mitigation, for a murder, but they do not make the murder “senseless.” On the contrary, it was most likely the exaggerated sense given to the antecedents, which may have been trivial or a matter of injured honor, that led to the crime.

Does it matter what words the police employ in their public comments? No doubt, the effects would be hard to measure. But “senseless” is a favorite word of theirs in describing, for example, a robbery in the course of which someone has been killed. “This was a robbery that went tragically wrong,” they say—as if a robbery that left the victim merely short of his possessions, but otherwise unharmed, had gone well and according to plan.

Confucius long ago called attention to the importance of calling things by their right names. The words that the British police use suggest that they have adopted the worldview of the perpetrators, not to improve their understanding of criminal intent, but because they accept their reasoning. It is no wonder why they are so ineffectual.

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