How panic changes your politics

The London riots turned lots of liberal people I know rather illiberal – or maybe it just revealed their true colours.

One trendy Dalston-dweller who I’m “friends” with on Facebook wrote last Monday: “At my front door. This is fucked up. Fucked up. Bulldoze those council estates with the scum inside them still in there…”

But in the riots’ aftermath, as debate rages about the harsh sentences being handed out to those involved, the liberals-turned-illiberals have remained conspicuously silent. Don’t they feel an urge to counter some of the criticism judges and magistrates are facing with their sentencing policy?

I feel a bit sorry for the courts on this. Riots scare people; they’re dangerous to society; they get a lot of attention and so become very public – and sentencing policy obviously has to acknowledge these things.

I imagine it’s a nightmare trying to walk the line between imposing a penalty that is tough without being unfair, knowing your credibility will be damaged if you get it wrong and end up having your judgment overturned.

Still, there’s little doubt that some judges and magistrates are getting it wrong. The four years for the Facebook riot inciters, in particular, looks as over the top as some of the sentences handed out (and later substantially reduced on appeal) to those involved in the 2001 Bradord race riots.

Looking back now, some of the first instance judges who presided over the Bradford cases seemed to fall victim to racist panic – remember, the Bradford riot cases were dealt with in the wake of 9/11. Something similar appears to be happening this time around (albeit with a less directly racial element), with the scary global recession taking the place of scary Al-Qaeda.

But, then, judges are only human – and as my Facebook friend well knows, it’s easy to panic when there’s riot in the air.

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