Men may be created equal, but not all murders are equal. Some are quickly forgotten, except by those immediately affected by them, while others—by no means always political assassinations—have a lasting political impact. Among the politically significant kind was the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man, in a London suburb on the evening of April 22, 1993. Five or six white youths set upon Lawrence and a friend, Duwayne Brooks. One of the attackers supposedly shouted, “What, what, nigger?” immediately before Lawrence was stabbed to death. Brooks managed to evade the attackers, who ran away.
Despite considerable circumstantial evidence against several suspects, the perpetrators escaped conviction. The police investigation into the murder was a model of incompetence of the kind that every Briton now expects of our boys in blue. Over the investigation there also hung a pall of suspected corruption, for one suspect was the son of a rich drug trafficker who, on a previous occasion when his son stood accused of a stabbing, had tried (unsuccessfully) to bribe and threaten the victim into altering his evidence.
But the Lawrence murder took on a wide social significance because of its racial overtones. The botched investigation became a cause célèbre—the presumption being that racism alone could explain the police’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice—and the government launched an official inquiry to “identify the lessons to be learned for the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes.” There followed a festival of political and emotional correctness the likes of which have rarely been equaled. It would be impossible, at less than book length, to plumb the depths of intellectual confusion and moral cowardice to which the inquiry plunged. In 1999, it released a report of its findings that won almost universal praise despite its risible shortcomings.
This year, on the tenth anniversary of the report, the press and professional criminologists are celebrating it for, as one put it, bringing about a “paradigm shift” in the sensitivities of British police about “diversity”—police now think about race all the time, it seems. The report’s real effect, however, was to demoralize further an already demoralized police force, which, immediately after the report appeared, retreated from stopping or searching people behaving suspiciously and watched street robberies increase 50 percent.
Perhaps the fact that the inquiry was open to the public had something to do with the nature of the resulting report. The public gallery regularly overflowed with activists and extremists, who did not hesitate to jeer and mock the witnesses with whom they disagreed; the head of the inquiry, Sir William Macpherson, rarely admonished these spectators, thus creating an officially sanctioned atmosphere of intimidation. Among the self-congratulatory sentences that opened the report (“We believe that our procedures did ensure fairness”; “The contributions of the Inquiry’s Advisers to the Report and to the conclusions to the Report . . . have been imaginative, radical and of incalculable worth”) was the following, a flash of lightning in the darkness: “We thank the officers from the Walworth Police Station, who in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances have helped to keep order when emotions ran high.” An incipient riot is not a situation in which the truth is likely to emerge or to be uppermost in people’s minds.
The report’s contention was that the mishandled Lawrence case illustrated the “institutional racism” of the London police force. Poor Sir William tied himself in knots trying to explain the notion of institutional racism, relying in part on that great moral authority on race relations, Stokely Carmichael, the onetime “prime minister” of the Black Panthers. As Macpherson admitted, he could point to no actual instance of racist behavior by the officers involved in the case, though evidence of incompetence and delay was abundant. But if he had concluded from the lack of evidence of racist behavior that the police were not racist, he doubtless would have become an object of execration by all the people who think the right thoughts. Thus Macpherson’s redefinition of racism: “Failure to adjust policies and methods to meet the needs of policing a multi-racial society can occur simply because police officers may mistakenly believe that it is legitimate to be ‘colour-blind’ in both individual and team response to the management and investigation of racist crimes.”
On the very next page, however, Sir William quoted approvingly the assertion of an association of black police officers: “Institutional racism leads officers to act, albeit unconsciously, and for the most part unintentionally, and treat others differently because of their ethnicity or culture.” In other words, if you treat people the same, you are racist; but if you treat them differently, you are racist. It is clear that we are here in the realm not of the rule of law but of the Malleus Maleficarum, and that Macpherson is acting not as judge but as witchfinder-general.
The evidence of institutional racism that Macpherson uncovered would be laughable, had the liberal press not taken it so seriously. For example, when the police arrived at the murder scene, Brooks snarled: “Who called you fucking cunts anyway, pigs, I only called an ambulance.” That the police did not feel entirely reassured that Brooks was a respectable, upright citizen, and ignored the fact that he was also a victim of the attack, became for Macpherson a sign of their racist stereotyping, not a natural response to such vile abuse, which is not a normal way for the law-abiding to address the supposed guardians of the law—or, indeed, anyone else.
Further evidence, in Sir William’s view, was that some of the detectives refused to accept that the Lawrence murder was “wholly racist,” though none denied at least a racist element. Of course, since no one had actually been convicted of the murder, the murderer’s motive could not be known for certain. And even if the suspects—a violent group, certainly—were indeed the culprits, was racism the sole, or even primary, cause of their violence? One suspect—David Norris, the drug trafficker’s son—was almost certainly guilty of that earlier stabbing in which his father became illegally involved, as the report observed. But there the victim was white. Norris and two other suspects in the Lawrence murder had also been suspects in another assault, this one on two brothers, both white. In both instances, Norris got off because of incompetent prosecutions.
Macpherson did not draw the obvious inference, and if he did, the liberal intelligentsia would not have applauded.
Let us assume that Norris was indeed one of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers. If the prosecution of Norris’s earlier crimes had not been so incompetent, and if he had received an adequate sentence if found guilty (an unlikely outcome in contemporary Britain), then Lawrence would now be alive.
At one point, the inquiry listened to secretly recorded conversations among the Lawrence suspects. The conversations were racist in the crudest possible way, but they were not purely racist. Norris said, for example, “If I was going to kill myself, do you know what I’d do? I’d go and kill every black cunt, every Paki, every copper, every mug that I know.” The police in London are not predominantly minorities; it is also unlikely that “every mug” that Norris knew was a minority. Norris’s propensity to racism was probably caused by his propensity to violence, rather than the other way around.
So on every possible ground, the police who dismissed the idea that the murder was “wholly racist” were right, at least factually. Their error was political or even metaphysical—beyond the realm of mere empirical evidence. On Macpherson’s view, the police should act more as defenders of politically correct orthodoxy than as keepers of the peace and searchers after the truth.
Further confirmation of Sir William’s moral cowardice was his uncritical acceptance of everything that Stephen Lawrence’s mother said. Now, Mrs. Lawrence had lost her son to murder, and the police had failed to solve the far from insoluble crime; she was understandably distraught and angry. But that did not make her the arbiter of truth; common sense, indeed, should have suggested the contrary. One might have hoped that a judge would have shown some judgment.
At the beginning of the report, Macpherson defended the unusually “adversarial” manner in which the inquiry was conducted. “Cross-examination of many officers was undoubtedly robust and searching,” he wrote. A few pages later, without noticing any contradiction, he mentioned that when one Mr. Gompertz, the counsel for the police, was questioning Mrs. Lawrence, “The nature and content of the questions made Mrs. Lawrence protest that her perception was that she was being put on trial. Wisely Mr. Gompertz desisted.” In short, only the accused could be questioned.
Mrs. Lawrence had already demonstrated that, no doubt in her distress, she was willing to go beyond the facts. In her statement to the coroner’s court, she said (and later repeated the assertion to Nelson Mandela when he visited London): “In my opinion what had happened was the way of the judicial system making a clear statement to the black community that their lives are worth nothing and the justice system will support any one, any white person who wishes to commit any crime or even murder against a black person, you will be protected, you will be supported by the British system.”
Even if we leave aside the question of why she bothered to participate in the system at all if it really was as she described it, she ought to have known that she was exaggerating. I quote from the report, which sought to show that Lawrence’s was not the only racist murder in the area:
In February 1991 a white man named Thornburrow murdered a young 15 year old black youth named Rolan Adams. . . . He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On 11 July 1992 an Asian boy called Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a white youth named Peter Thompson. . . . Thompson was found guilty of the murder in February 1993.
Mrs. Lawrence should have known about these sentences. If she did not, she was ignorant; if she did, she was lying. But all that Macpherson said of her incendiary charge was that it showed the depth of her feeling—not that it was inaccurate and misleading. Her victimhood had to be immaculate.
Mrs. Lawrence further said that she felt condescended to by the police and ascribed this condescension to their racism. Macpherson showed—surprisingly, for a judge—no recognition of the obvious difficulties in accepting such feeling as evidence of anything. He did not even demand that her feelings have some objective correlative: if she felt condescended to because of racism, she was condescended to because of racism.
Among the report’s many pernicious recommendations was the following: “The definition of a racist incident should be any incident which is perceived as racist by the victim or any other person.” Nothing could be better designed to destroy the possibility of easy—dare I say normal—relations among people of different races. For the notion that racism is so pervasive and institutionalized that it is everywhere, even where it appears not to be, induces in the susceptible a paranoid state of mind, which then finds racism in every possible situation, in every remark, in every suggestion, in every gesture and expression. It is a charge against which there is no defense.
Two incidents in my clinical experience illustrate this nonfalsifiability. In the first, the lawyers for a black defendant asked me to appraise his fitness to plead. The defendant faced charges of assaulting another black man, out of the blue, with an iron bar. The man was obviously paranoid, his speech rambling and incoherent; his lawyers could obtain no sensible instructions from him. I argued that he was unfit to plead. Whereupon the man’s sister denounced me as a racist: I had reached my conclusions, she charged, only because her brother was black. Her 15-year-old daughter started to describe to me her frequent difficulties in understanding her uncle, only to be told to shut up by her mother. The lawyers had been unable to obtain instructions from the defendant only because they were white, the sister persisted. Give her brother black lawyers, and he would be perfectly reasonable. Of course, if I had said that he was fit to plead, she could have claimed with equal justice (which is none) that I came to that conclusion only because he was black.
The second case, far more serious, ended in a man’s death; the blame was partly mine. A black man in his mid-twenties arrived at our hospital with severely cut wrists. He was nearly exsanguinated and needed a large blood transfusion; his tendons also needed an operation to repair. By all accounts, he had been a perfectly normal man, happily employed, a few weeks before, but suddenly he had stopped eating and become a recluse, barricading himself in his house until police and family broke in to reach him. His suicide attempt was not one of those frivolous gestures with which our hospitals are all too familiar. If ever a man meant to kill himself, this man did.
His mother was by his bedside. I told her that her son should remain in the hospital for treatment (you’d hardly have to be a doctor to realize this). At first she was perfectly agreeable; but then a friend of the young man, himself young and black, arrived and instantly accused me of racism for my supposed desire to lock the patient up. I tried to reason with this friend, but he became agitated and aggressive, even menacing. Whether from conviction or because she, too, felt intimidated, the mother then sided with the friend and started to say that I was racist in wishing to detain her son.
I could have insisted on the powers granted to me by law—asking a court to have social services replace the mother as the patient’s nearest relative for the legal purpose of keeping him in treatment. But I did not fancy the process: the young friend had threatened to bring reinforcements, and a riot might have ensued in the hospital. Instead, I agreed to the demand that I let the patient go home. The two said that they would look after him, and I made them sign a paper (of no legal worth) acknowledging that I had warned them of the possible consequences.
This piece of paper they screwed up into a ball and threw away immediately outside the ward, where I found it later. I had made copies, and it was one of these that I sent to the coroner when, six weeks later, the young man gassed himself to death with car exhaust. The notion of ubiquitous, institutionalized racism resulted in his death; and I resolved that it would never intimidate me again.
When I think of Macpherson’s feeble mental pirouettes, I turn for relief to an official 1854 report into some abuses committed in Birmingham Borough Prison, where I myself worked a century and a half later. Every day, as I entered, I passed an oak notice board, on which one could read, displayed in gold lettering, the names of past governors of the prison. The second on the list was Lieutenant William Austin of the Royal Navy, whose cruelties—among those of other prison officials, including its doctor—a commission of inquiry had investigated.
To read the commission’s report after Macpherson’s is to enter a different world, one in which words mean what they appear to mean, the integrity of the commissioners is self-evident, facts count more than feelings, and conclusions follow from the evidence. In fact, to read the commission’s report after Macpherson’s is to experience a powerful sense of moral and intellectual progress—at least among the writers of official reports—but in the wrong temporal direction, alas. The prose of the commissioners, one of them a doctor, is clear, vigorous, and without the evasions and contradictions of Macpherson’s writing. They write like men who know they are doing a good job well.
The event that brought the abuses to light was the suicide of a 15-year-old inmate named Edward Andrews, who had stolen four pounds of beef and been sentenced to three months’ hard labor in the prison. The suicide revealed a pattern of abuse. The commission discovered that the prison imposed an entirely illegal system of “hard labour” that forced prisoners to turn a crank 10,000 times a day—2,000 before breakfast, 4,000 before lunch, and 4,000 before dinner. If a prisoner did not complete each stage, he lost the subsequent meal. If he did not complete the 10,000 by the end of the day, he was put on bread and water. The weight on the crank was adjusted, supposedly to meet each prisoner’s physical capabilities.
The commissioners inspected the crank machines and described them with great clarity:
Although in pressing the handle downwards the prisoner has only the five pounds to bear down, yet in lifting it up, when nearest his body, he has to exert a force equal to at least three times that weight; and according to the same evidence, the labour would be of a nature most severe and exhausting; insomuch as, taking into account the speed with which it must be performed in order to accomplish the number of revolutions required for a day’s work, 10,000 namely, or nearly 30 revolutions a minute, we were assured that, in order to accomplish such a task, a boy would necessarily exert a force equal to one-fourth of the ordinary work of a draught horse; the average estimate of the work of a boy, in ordinary labour out of a prison, being about one-tenth of the same.
Young Andrews, unable to complete the work, was not only put on bread and water but also, on Lieutenant Austin’s characteristically harsh order, dressed in the “punishment jacket.” This consisted of an ordinary straitjacket, combined—again illegally—with a leather collar fixed around the prisoner’s neck and attached to the wall. “Very speedily after [the jackets’] introduction into the prison,” the commissioners explained, “they appear to have been converted into ordinary implements of punishment for non-performance of prison labour or breaches of prison discipline (frequently of a very trivial nature).”
The commissioners describe how the “punishment jacket” worked: “the prisoner being first muffled in the strait jacket, having his arms tied together on his breast, the leather stock fastened tightly round his neck, and being, moreover (where the punishment was inflicted by day), in almost every case strapped to the wall of his cell, in a standing position, by means of strong leather straps passed round the upper parts of the arms, and fastened to staples or hooks in the wall, so tightly as to draw back the arms into and keep them in a constrained and necessarily painful position, at the same time compressing them.” After watching a willing volunteer strapped into the jacket, the commissioners realized that “it was obvious that such a mode of restraint must necessarily, if continued for several hours, be productive of great pain—in truth, that it must be an engine of positive torture.” Their conclusion: “With respect, then, to the case of Edward Andrews, we are of opinion that, by the order and with the knowledge of the governor, he was punished illegally and cruelly, and was driven thereby to the commission of suicide.”
The conclusion reflected a proper and transparently honest sifting of the evidence. The Macpherson report did not. Since 1854, prison conditions have improved. Since 1999, race relations have not.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Not with a Bang but a Whimper.