1960s >> 1962 >> no-693-may-1962

What Makes a Thug?

They are still worrying over the young, violent criminal. It is easy to sneer at them, in their conferences bending anxious eyes over statistics. But a young thug is, apart from anything else, a socially ugly person so perhaps it is as well that there is somebody to worry over him and to try to find out why he moves around in his own little nightmare of violence. But the worriers—and this is no sneer never come up with the answer. They hammer away at parents, at schools, newspapers, television. They experiment in methods of treatment and punishment. Yet after this the young thug is still with us, coshing and slashing, and sometimes killing.

Last month, we remember, there was something of an uproar about the television portrayal of Bill Sikes murdering Nancy in the serialised Oliver Twist. Even the Postmaster General criticised the episode in the strongest language. There is some evidence that young people like to try and imitate death scenes which they have seen on T.V. Many adults were uneasy that some youngsters might try to do a Bill Sikes on their girl friends. Perhaps this was being rather unfair to the poor old BBC. At least, the Bill Sikes episode showed passionate murder as it is a messy and obscene business, with human beings behaving like dull beasts. That might put potential thugs off. But it is a different matter with the westerns and some of the crime serials. These make violence seem so much sweeter, less damaging, less violent, in fact. At least, when Bill Sikes throttled Nancy she went out spluttering and struggling. The cowboy or detective hero, on the other hand, can take a thunderbolt on his head, shake himself, blink and smile and recover in time for the next episode.

If this teaches anything, it is that violence is sent to test our manliness. Any influence which television might have upon the criminal figure should surely be credited (if that is the word) to the cops and robbers type of programme.

Yet even when we have said that, we are still a long way from the bottom of the matter. Some months ago a reader of The Guardian wrote to that newspaper criticising the BBC’s choice of plays as laying too great an emphasis upon sex, gangsterism and crimes of violence. This letter brought forth a sharp reply from a Reverend Jones, who wrote from The Vicarage at Appleby. There was, said Mr. Jones, another sort of programme in which these things were given prominence: “I refer to the general news.” The reverend thought that the broadcasting companies should do their best to play down these aspects or to broadcast them only when adults were likely to be tuned in.

The interesting thing about this letter is that its writer realised that the real world is in parts just as violent and intimidating as any script writer’s nightmare scenario. It is not surprising that Mr. Jones missed the point that in real world capitalism violence is unavoidable. To say the least of it, anyone who sets out to teach a child that violence is socially useless has an uphill battle ahead. There is a constant pressure upon all of us to believe that the violence used by capitalism’s heroes is glorious and commendable. A battle of Britain fighter pilot can be as violent as he likes. So can a Lovat Commando or a detective roping in a bunch of bank robbers.
Capitalism, in fact, is a violent society, in which war is as much a part of our life as milk is of cheese. And what does war mean? Admiral Jackie Fisher, who it better known as an austere, belligerent sailor, once spoke his mind on the matter. “It’s perfect rot,” he said, “to talk about Civilised Warfare. You might as well talk about Heavenly Hell! ” (Fisher also said, at another time, ” . . .  we can only have community of interests in the masses of people always being on the side of peace, because it is the masses who are massacred, not the kings and generals and politicians.” which was a strange comment from a man whose job was to send some of the masses to be massacred).
We all grow up now under a cloud of socially organised violence. Our newspapers scream black headlines about fall out and missiles and anti-missiles and anti-anti-missiles. Nobody can feel secure when the world itself staggers from one crisis to another, always with the horrible feeling that the next might be the one to push the fingers down upon the buttons marked FIRE. This is a potent cause for despair and cynicism. Here is one of the roots of criminal violence. Do the worriers, then, speak out on this at their conferences? They are stuck with capitalism, and their hopeless efforts to reform it. They do not, therefore, speak out.
We should not forget that the ground in which capitalism’s criminals take root is always well tilled and fertile. Why do people turn to crime? Most of us get our living by going out to work for a wage, which is often a precarious business. Even in boom time we need never be far off a recession which means short time or redundancy. Going out to work can be a boring business. Men can stand all day on the same spot, going through the same simple action time and again. Or they may sit at a desk shuffling the same dull paperwork, with their only prospect of excitement the chance of finding a miscast invoice. Young girls type endless letters and forms or fill up endless boxes of sweets. Yes, going to work for a living is often a precarious, boring, unpleasant business.
Small wonder that so many dream of the big pools win to take them away from it all. And no wonder either that a few decide that the chances against climbing out of the rut by keeping within capitalism’s laws are stacked high enough to justify them trying some other way. Such people are criminal material. Indeed, some criminals have coldly worked it out that they would spend a large part of their life in gaol, rather than give it all up to the nine to five-thirty routine with only a shiny trouser seat to show for it. The criminal, like any law abiding worker, dreams of the easy touch, the job that clicks. Usually it doesn’t come off; that is why so many ol them lose their gamble and end up as shambling old lags.
Property rights stand between the criminal and his objective. To get what he wants he is prepared not only to break capitalism’s laws. To clinch a Job he will beat up a watchman or cosh a messenger or even kill a cashier. Then if they catch him there is the macabre process of trial and sentence and execution. There is no lack of newspapers, fighting for sales, to give us all the juicy details. And what effect is this supposed to have upon potentially violent criminals? Victor Terry shot down the bank guard at Worthing on the very day that a friend of his was executed for murder. A member of the last Royal Commission on Capital Punishment put it on record that he was finally convinced of the need to abolish hanging when he read the letters, which regularly arrive at the Home Office. applying for the job of public hangman.
We can see that the matter of violence in society is more complex than simply trying to assess the effects upon a young child of watching Bill Sikes do Nancy in. Like so many of the other unpleasant aspects of capitalist society, it is all something of a shambles. But it is a shambles which can be sorted out. The first need is to have a world so organised that human welfare is at the top of the list of social priorities instead of being, as it is now, somewhere near the bottom A world like that would get rid of most violence by simply not having wars and poverty and criminal farms like the slums of the big cities.
When we have done that we can get down to finding out why some (if any) people may be violent. We can look at it for what it is — or should be — a human problem. That will be better than beating or hanging or punishing. It will be better than fussing the kids away from the television set. It will even be better than worrying over statistics in muddled, if well meaning, conferences.

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