It’s our worst urban nightmare. A drizzly lunchtime in East London. A slight teenage girl is walking down the street when a stranger runs up from behind, takes a violent swing, and punches her in the back of head with such force that she falls face down on the sidewalk. The balding male attacker, probably twice her weight, then merrily jogs back where he came from, leaving his victim unconscious, perhaps lifeless, on the ground.
This particularly random stranger attack took place on Nov. 13 in Plaistow in East London, and early this week Scotland Yard released a 10-second closed-circuit TV sequence of the assault on the innocent victim who had just left her home. Mercifully, though treated for cuts to her face and bruising on the head, the 16-year-old was released from the hospital that evening.
Such graphic sequences of random-stranger violence may be rare in reality, but they’re regularly played out on YouTube and 24-hour cable. Not a week seems to go by without the police releasing some kind of real-life horror video, such as the CCTV this year of an older man randomly pushing a young woman onto train tracks in Leicester Square Underground station, where she narrowly missed the third live rail. If you spent too long watching these sequences of random thuggery, you could easily get the impression that Britain has reverted to a war zone, a Hobbesian state where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”
But impressions—especially viral-video impressions—are misleading.
Part of the perception of greater personal violence is that—thanks to technology—more incidents are caught on camera and more readily perceived, and Britain is reputed to have more CCTV coverage of its streets and public places than most other countries. For many, the growth of camera surveillance showed an incipient authoritarian streak, especially in the Britain of Tony Blair’s New Labour. One of the most popular images circulated by libertarians on the Internet is of a blue plaque commemorating a house in Notting Hill where Orwell lived, complete with a security camera mounted beside it on the white stucco façade. Actually the image is a complete fake—although it doesn’t stop people posting it day after day (although, to be fair, there is a sign warning of CCTV camera surveillance in George Orwell Place in Barcelona). Reputable newspapers and broadcasters still tell you there are more than 4 million security cameras in the U.K. and that the average person can be captured by 300 cameras in any one day. The Orwellian message is clear. The eyes of the state were everywhere. “Big Brother is watching you.”
The problem is that few of these stories are based on any facts. Times columnist David Aaronovitch researched the much-cited “300 cameras in a day” story and debunked it as an urban myth—a diligent piece of public skepticism that inspired the Full Fact website, which now makes regular checks of the untested assertions that fill the British press.
As for the 4 million cameras report, an evidence-based survey calculated the number was less than half of that, and that 95 percent of the cameras were privately owned by shops, businesses, and homes. If anyone is watching you, it’s not Big Brother, but your neighbor.
However, there is still a perceptual backwash. Though CCTV has been proven to deter crime in busy city centers, help direct first responders to incidents, and clear up a number of felonies after the event, its psychological effect is the reverse: by making more crime vivid and present, it seems to suggest a decay in social norms and rise in interpersonal violence.
Perhaps the ubiquity of imagery explains why the vast majority of Britons seem to think that violent crime is rising—75 percent of all respondents in a British Crime Survey, even though this flies in the face of the evidence. Since 1995 violent crimes are down by nearly half, and they show no signs of rising despite the last four years of a double-dip recession.
Even rational, well-informed people seem to find evidence of a decline in violence hard to believe. Tell a random drinking partner or dinner guest about Stephen Pinker’s groundbreaking and counterintuitive opus, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which shows how interpersonal violence has fallen drastically in the last three centuries, and they will scoff at it for being naive and selective. Tell them that in the last 50 years (despite a brief debated uptick in the 1960s), in the U.S. and Europe, “rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals are all substantially down,” and they will look at you like some deluded utopian.
Crime also fits in with a peculiar British sense of decline and moral superiority. Back in 1946, George Orwell noted that the perennial popularity of (the now-shuttered) News of the World was due to its lurid depictions of vicarious carnage and murder. It’s probably this penchant for virtual violence that leads Britain’s bestselling middlebrow paper, the Daily Mail, to make the ridiculous claim that British crime rates were worse than in South Africa and the U.S. The shock horror satisfies our cravings for conflict and yet justifies our comfy suburban disconnect. As Benedict Spinoza once wrote, “free people are led more by hope than by fear, while subjugated people are led more by fear than hope.”
As for CCTV Britain, these short video nasties may be having a counterintuitive effect. Scotland Yard deliberately released the images of the Plaistow attack, with the victim’s consent, in an attempt to identify the assailant. Within days, Michael Ayoade, 34, was arrested. He appeared at Thames Magistrates’ Court on Saturday and was remanded in custody, having pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm.