Self Defence or Self Delusion? (long)

Today’s Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 was almost made to infuriate me. It was almost as if the researchers read my mind and found some topics that would be guaranteed to get on my wick, and better still would be certain to get the amazing collection of people who ring in, to ring in and add to the nonsense being debated. Well, it worked like a treat. It really did. If it wasn’t frowned upon to use work telephones to phone radio shows and call every one idiots, I would have done so today. Really. And I do hate myself for it, because it means I am another one of the brain addled fools who rings in to rant.

Anyway, admissions over with, on to the rant. Today’s “show” began with a call in about the expulsion of four Russian diplomats following the Russian refusal to extradite the man suspected of killing Litvinenko (news). This was reasonably tepid – at the end of the day it is the sort of thing which is done in international politics. It strikes me as reasonable for the UK government to demand his extradition. It is almost reasonable for Russia to resist, and if the UK had a punishment regime which was worse than in Russia (death sentence etc), then I would certainly back their refusal. As it stands, we don’t.

I was only half listening to this, the callers were generally only calling so they could go on air and criticise the UK government over something, logical consistency was nicely ignored. A few messages read out were along the lines of people accusing the UK of “punching above its weight” etc and saying we should just keep quiet and not hassle the Russians over this. Odd standards, but there you go. It didn’t rile me that much.

Next came the best bit. The middle debate was about some “research” which apparently shows 1 in 3 British people sleep with a weapon by their bed. Mostly these are things like baseball bats and hammers. Now, as I don’t know anyone who does this there is implication that entire cities are full of people who go to bed armed to the teeth.

The basic premise was debated initially by the guy who is an ex-burglar and now a BBC1 TV “personality” showing people how to prevent break-ins (cant remember his name), and “Daily Mail Columnist” Peter Hitchens. Instantly you can see this is going to make the blood boil. The Mail describe him as having an “uncompromising blog” when in reality he spouts out pure nonsense. Often it is ill informed nonsense, sometimes it is offensive nonsense, but it is always nonsense.

Anyway, the ex-Burglar chappie made some reasonable comments along the lines of hiding a weapon by your bed will not deter thieves and if you batter the burglar you are likely to face prosecution. He went on to suggest better ways of preventing burglary. FoolHitchens replied to this by saying it was a policy of fear and assumed burglary was always going to happen. He then went on to spout out some fanciful claims about how it was “better 30 – 40 years ago” and that it was all societies fault that people were too frightened to sleep without a hammer next to their bed.

Showing either his mastery of irony, or more likely his lack of any idea of logical conclusion, Hitchens continued to create an argument from despair about declining moral standards and how the law was at fault. Etc. It was pure sound bite designed to cater to his selection of Mail readers, he even went as far as to lament how it is always the middle class (of which he seems proud to include himself 1) who have to suffer, how they are the only law abiding people and so on. If you can get the listen again bit to play (I cant tonight for some reason) it kicks in at about 35 – 45 min point and you can hear him head down the road of quoting imaginary statistics. He really is an annoying *****.

Despite his claims to know about criminology, it seems on this subject as so many others, Hitchen is a poor student. For a start, despite his ideas that there was a golden age x years ago (it changes depending on what he is writing for etc), this really is not the case. Burglary is a poor one for him to try and pin on the social decline because it is one of the few crimes which is easy to track over the years. Looking at both the British Crime Survey and the reports from the ACPO, burglary is on the decline and has been since 1999. Going back more than two decades and it was much higher during the halcyon years he lusts after – in the late seventies and eighties it was significantly greater than today.

Add to this the reality that most people subjected to burglary are poor people who live in poor neighbourhoods and you can see he has built an argument on foundations of quicksand. The incidents of burglars (normally poor people themselves) travelling to “middle class” neighbourhoods to do a spot of pilfering is low to say the least. Despite the Daily Mail’s scare stories, “middle class” areas have a greater police presence, higher incidence of home alarms etc. All of these go towards protecting the property. If you doubt this, try to find some insurance quotes. Try for a poor, run down, inner city area and compare that with the same – or larger – property in a “nice” postcode area. As someone who has lived in both areas, I can tell you the difference is staggering.

Fundamentally, this talk show and especially Hitchens pure nonsense, speaks more of a segment of society which has (for whatever reason) allowed itself to become frightened of ghosts. This middle class who read the mail and listen to idiotHitchens are being tricked into thinking there is much more of a risk than there actually is. Note: I am not downplaying the risk or saying burglary is not a terrible thing to be subjected to. It strikes me this current furore over the subject is a result of Kerry Katona getting held up at knife point in her own home (news). Now her circumstances were terrible. You wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy but they certainly are not indicative of the experiences of “normal” people. Three men sledgehammered their way into her house and held a knife to her neck. They did this because she was very rich (not middle class). It is not a typical event. It is so atypical it made the news headlines.

As this was a “phone in” show, you can imagine the comedy value from the callers. Worryingly, every one I heard said they did, indeed, sleep with a weapon next to their bed. Now, this may be an artefact caused by the researchers selection process but it is still disturbing.

The callers were all saying how they kept baseball bats, hammers (even one had a crossbow, a pilum and a sword to hand …) in case their home was invaded and they needed to fight to defend their property. Blimey. A nation of ninjas. In the past I have ranted about firearms and it may be easy to guess that I am not a big fan of people taking this route towards home defence. There are many issues, but the main one I have problem with, is it is ludicrous to say the least.

Among the callers were a few women and what sounded like an older than middle aged man. Now, without going into too much detail I am fairly confident I have at least an average understanding of what is involved in a claws out fight with weapons to hand(2). I am also 100% confident that if some one attacked me with a hammer, without knowing the best way to wield this particular weapon, I could take it off them and inflict major damage on them. This is the basic thing for people who try to defend themselves like this to realise. As soon as they confront the burglar with the weapon the stakes are raised. Lots of callers were saying that they challenged a burglar with a butter knife (or whatever) and he ran off. What would happen if he hadn’t run off though?

Sticking with the hammer as an example (although the same applies to most “household” weapons), most people attacking a burglar will do the adrenalin inspired thing and swing it at the burglars head. Great if he isn’t looking and doesn’t know you are there – you may hit him. If he is aware of your presence, it really is unlikely you will get a solid blow anywhere it counts. Now, the important bit is if you miss. This can be trouble. Most swinging weapons tend to encourage people to swing them full force – this is especially the case if “frail” people are using them as they seem to want to get their bodyweight behind it. When the weapon fails to connect, the person swinging will often be forced to carry on with the swing until they can either bring it under control, or it hits something (often the floor or wall). While this is going on, most people are largely unable to do anything – other than get beaten or killed by the intruder who now (rightly) fears for his or her own life.

Baseball bats, for example, are often more effective used as a poking weapon rather than swinging, but I doubt any of the people who called in, proud they have one, would use it like this if an intruder was in their house. If that first swing fails to totally disable the attacker, it is unlikely the home-defender will come away from the situation in a “nice way.”

More worryingly, there was the idea that this (weapons by the bed) was a good idea for the elderly and women alone with small children. Blimey. The worst categories. Sadly, illusions aside, most of the middle class homeowners are unlikely to be well versed in the raw aggression and violence a fight like this can produce. If the burglar is the stereotypical 40 – 50 year old “career burglar” then fine, they may well run off. If the intruder is young, a hardened criminal (fighting in prison is a good way to learn close in skills) or a desperate drug addict, the chances are the office-working home owner will be given a sadly firm lesson in self defence.

There really is only one sensible course of action if you are in your house when a burglar breaks in. Lock yourself in a room and call the police. If you try to challenge the intruder you are risking everything. If there is more than one of them, or they don’t flee immediately things are going to get a LOT worse for you. Remember you can replace property. Your nose, bones or even your life are more important.

A weapon by the bed does not make you any safer than a lock on your bedroom door. The weapon, no matter how much it may “reassure” you is actually more likely to ensure you are hurt rather than robbed. It will not act as a deterrent to the thief, as he has to be in your house before he knows it is there.

One last point – if a burglar breaks in while you are home, it is less likely that he is the “career burglar” mentioned above, so really think twice before trying to be the hero. Despite this, the chances of being burgled are low, and the chances of it happening while you are at home is even lower. If you really are that worried, check your insurance policy – it is the best defence to losing things you have.

Sadly, I have spent so long ranting about this nonsense I no longer have the energy to pick up on the last piece of the show which was about Imaginary Friends. What a gift that would have been 🙂 .

[tags]Crime, Society, Peter Hitchens, Philosophy, Self Defence, Middle Class, Burglary, Nonsense, Madness, Woo, Culture, Fear, Imaginary Friend, Belief, Ideas, Media, Daily Mail, BBC, BBC2, Radio, Knives, Weapons[/tags]

1 – It should be noted that the wiki page for his brother has this to say:

Hitchens was educated at The Leys School, Cambridge (his mother arguing that ‘If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.’) [13], and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. During his years as a student at Oxford, he was tutored by Steven Lukes.

Unless the family were particularly spoiling Christopher rather than Peter, I can only assume both went to Oxford. Not the normal “Middle Class” behaviour.

2 – For my sins, I have spent a period of my life teaching people how to fight like this and also teaching people how to secure their property.

8 thoughts on “Self Defence or Self Delusion? (long)

  1. While I completely agree that for many people, a weapon such as a hammer or bat by the bed may be a bad idea, and calling the police is often better, I have to disagree and say that not many things will stop an intruder quite as fast as a 9mm hole in the brain. That includes the police, unless their response time is less than the muzzle velocity of the bullet. Keeping in mind I’m limiting that recommendation to people who actually act responsibly regarding gun ownership and who spend some time learning how to get the bullet from the clip to whatever needs a hole. Otherwise you are more of a danger to yourself and your family, and would be better off throwing the gun at the intruder.

  2. Within the tiny set of people you describe (“people who actually act responsibly regarding gun ownership and who spend some time learning how to get the bullet from the clip to whatever needs a hole”) then I agree totally that it an effective way to punish a burglar. Fortunately this is pretty much totally illegal here in the UK.

    Sadly, lots and lots of people fall into your latter category and are more of a danger to themselves. Despite their bravado, lots of people are unable to keep themselves calm and controlled enough to effectively kill an intruder in a panic situation, often late a night. Target discrimination is also problematic.

    On the balance, I think most people – especially here in the UK – are deluding themselves if they think arming themselves is the best route to go down.

    On a more philosophical note, a lot of it boils down to if the person feel the death sentence is suitable for burglary and if the person is happy to take on board all the new risks (killing relative by accident, drawing the weapon and missing, the general escalation of violence etc). At the end of the day, property is only property – it can be insured…

  3. Pingback: Why Dont You Blog? » Media Inspired Cluelessness

  4. It doesn’t matter how rare being burgled is, according to statistics. The question is, what would you do if you were? I keep a crossbow under my bed, hopefully I’ll never have to use it and I doubt I ever will, but any sort of weapon increases your chances greatly if you just happen to be subject to a violent break-in, however improbable one may be. While the first thing you should be concerned with is calling the police, it’s a massive gamble to take expecting them to handle 100% of your personal safety.

    I’m not a betting man but I would bet a pound to an empty crisp packet that a criminal could break into your home and make off with your belongings (or worse) before the police arrive…

  5. Thanks for the comment, but I think you missed some of the point I was trying to make.

    The statistics and rarity of break ins were brought up to discuss the somewhat irrational fear people have of crime.

    Having the crossbow under your bed might be a good idea. You might well be a good enough shot to be able to use it effectively while half asleep or in a stressful situation. What you have to be aware of,. though, is how much the situation will escalate when you confront the burglar with it.

    Are you prepared for what to do if the burglar does not flee when you confront him? Are you prepared what to do if you fire the cross bow and for whatever reason it does not disable / kill the burglar? If there are two or more burglars are you capable of firing and reloading fast enough to prevent a rush and overpowering? What will you do if the burglar has a gun and you are brandishing a crossbow at him?

    I am all for making people feel safe in their houses, but I do think there are better ways to do it. You may be skilled enough with your weapon of choice to use it properly, but not everyone is. Poor skills with a “defensive” weapon will simply cause the situation to escalate, often beyond the persons ability to defend themselves and then, rather than a break in, it becomes a murder.

    Nothing I own is worth my life. If burglars break into my house, I am able to secure myself in the bedroom and call for assistance. While the police may be slow reacting to burglaries, they are faster if you are under siege in the bedroom.

  6. If the intruder was a middle-aged man dressed in a cat-suit with a swag bag over his shoulder, who ‘only’ wanted to steal your TV and DVD player, most people would be better off doing the sensible (and responsible) thing of calling the police and hiding.

    But that’s the problem; you don’t know who it is or what their intentions are. Automatically assuming that he doesn’t want to come upstairs and hurt you might be a dangerous mistake. Regardless of the media’s tendency to blow everything up out of all proportion, the fact is there are a lot of sick people out there — is being prepared really such a bad idea?

    The fact that he’s entered your home while you’re there should be very worrying — if he was a career burglar, he certainly wouldn’t be much of one for making such a blundering mistake. So you have to take into consideration that he might be: violent, drunk, drugged up, or worst of all, an idiot — or maybe even all. He might leave quietly after clearing your living room out; or he might have heard a noise upstairs, decides it’s better if there’s no witnesses and comes to sort you out.

    A typical inside door is made of light wood and held down with a few thin screws. If the unthinkable happened I’d imagine most would be surprised at how quickly it would be broken down. I bet the person hiding inside would be wishing he’d done the same as the paranoid lunatic down the internet who has a crossbow. 🙂

    As you quite rightly said, the chances of all this happening are very low. But in the same way you plan what to do in case of fire, it’s common sense to have a plan for an intrusion.

    I understand that the point you were trying to make was more about the have-a-go-heroes inflaming the situation by going at burglars like John Rambo, but the law states we all have a reasonable right to self-defence, defence of property and even to make a citizen’s arrest, despite what the tabloids say.

    There’s a reason why bogus callers and con-artists usually target old women — they KNOW there’s practically zero chance of resistance. If no-one was prepared to confront intruders ever, I can guarantee we’d have a lot more break-ins, with all the added risks that come with it.

    Finally, I want to assure all the women out there I’m not a sexist. I only referred to the intruder as a ‘he’ for simplicity’s sake. Thanks to equal rights women can be criminals too, if they like.

  7. Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Actually, I think that the middle aged “professional” burglar is the one you are most likely to be able to scare off if you appear at the top of the stairs brandishing a weapon.

    But that’s the problem; you don’t know who it is or what their intentions are. Automatically assuming that he doesn’t want to come upstairs and hurt you might be a dangerous mistake. Regardless of the media’s tendency to blow everything up out of all proportion, the fact is there are a lot of sick people out there — is being prepared really such a bad idea?

    I am not automatically assuming he doesn’t want to come upstairs and hurt you. I am saying that it makes more sense to me to defend somewhere which normally has a single point of entry than expose yourself to an unknown situation.

    In your bedroom you can control the access – even if you only have a light interior door this is still a single point of entry so you know where the intruder will come from. Once you venture out into what has become an unknown situation the risks multiply. You don’t know how many intruders there are, if they are armed or what their intention is.

    From a purely military perspective fighting in built up areas is insanely manpower intensive because you have to make sure you can clear each room. Just because you have heard a burglar downstairs doesn’t mean there isn’t a quieter friend of his going through the medicine cabinet in your bathroom. As you go out, brandishing your crossbow, and head down stairs, who is guarding your rear?

    I agree wholeheartedly that the problem of defending the bedroom is the weak internal doors we have, but I suggest that if there is sufficient fear of intruders to consider arming yourself, the money and effort would be better spent shoring up your defences first.

    I can concede a possible compromise that a good solution would be to stay in the bedroom with the crossbow – then if the burglar forces the door you have a good, well framed, shot along with a huge amount of “self defence” cases should the CPS decide you used “excessive” force.

    One thing I still do not see as being sensible is leaving your safe haven and sallying forth to challenge the intruders. Yes, the law allows for citizens arrests and the like, but be realistic. Do you own things so valuable that you consider losing them more damaging than losing your life? As you say, a burglar who breaks in to an occupied house is far from the “normal” criminal so, while you may go downstairs to see a drunk teenager who will scarper, you could also find three junkies with knives. Taking one out may make your death seem more heroic but will that matter to you?

    Last point – it is an interesting postulate that if no one was prepared to confront intruders ever the rate of intrusion would increase. It has the nice ring of “common sense” truth but I am not convinced by it. It seems reasonable to assume that the set of burglars who don’t burgle simply because they are frightened some one will defend is non-zero so the numbers may well go up – but I am not sure how the burglar would know for sure that no one would ever defend…

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