Modern Times: Crime & Ambivalence

February 2013

  • Andrew Hunter

St Petersburg, the setting for Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, froze this northern winter. Adelaide by contrast melts in an increasingly stifling climate.

The protagonist of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, committed a murder that was premeditated, rational, and in his mind, justified. Like Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, the French poet who earlier in the 18th century committed a double murder and justified his actions as a protest against social injustice, the fictional Raskolnikov also saw higher purpose in his violent act. Crime and Punishment was a portrait of a tortured conscience.

Much of the violence in Adelaide this summer has been spontaneous, irrational and unjustified. The popular perception that the level of violence is rising lacks nuance. The number of pre-meditated crimes, such as armed robbery and gun-related homicides, has fallen over the last decade whilst aggravated assault has risen. Violence now has an incomprehensively frivolous quality. It also wears a youthful face.

The parliamentary year being finished, summer provides a window of opportunity to shift the national conversation from the economy to society. The senseless nature of violence in Australia merits deep consideration. It is an issue that should concern our national leaders. Only the crickets have been heard during this forgettable summer.

Law enforcers asked to comment on disturbing but otherwise unconnected incidents grasp for a satisfactory explanation. According to a police officer quoted in the newspaper, the violence that took place in Adelaide over the New Year period was “generally alcohol-fuelled”. Whilst the alcohol-soaked character of social life in Australia ironically contributes to an embarrassing level of anti-social behaviour, it does not alone explain the violence of recent times.

Do socio-economic circumstances alone offer a full explanation as to why more Australians are being stabbed, glassed or otherwise assaulted? According to Associate Professor Thomas W. Nielsen of the University of Canberra, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour is increasingly seen in young people across all socio-economic groupings and demographics.

Decreasing or ineffective parental guidance has some impact on the behaviour of young Australians, but not all violent offenders are products of broken homes or uncaring parents. Australian courtrooms are not lacking for connected and caring parents who see their offspring in the dock and question what more they could have done for their children. Violence is an issue that implicates the whole of society.

Our national leaders are unfortunately silent on the issue, but others are happy to fill the void. Echoes of America’s National Rifle Association (NRA) could be heard when Bob Katter was recently quoted in The Australian asserting that “there’s something dreadfully sick in a country that is so trusting of its neighbours that it disarms its own people”. The same article encapsulated Katter’s belief that gun control is an example of ‘do good… nannyism’.

Certain legal and regulatory ‘intrusions’ are necessary to achieve a common good. Since John Howard’s gun buyback program, the number of gun-related deaths has halved. Recent reports found that the one million firearms surrendered through the buyback program have effectively been replaced over the last decade by a similar number of imported guns, but this largely reflects a significant increase in population over the same period. As Andrew Leigh noted recently, per capita gun ownership has remained relatively stable over the past decade.

In a statement made shortly after the Newtown massacre in the United States, the executive director of the NRA blamed the violent content in video games and in mainstream films. Whilst it is evidently in the NRA’s interests to decouple mass shootings and the lack of gun control, he made a fundamentally valid point about a tendency also common to Australia.

Two decades ago, a study published in a book titled Big World, Small Screen; the Role of Television in American Society suggested that by the time they reach high school, American children would have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television. One imagines that these numbers would be comparable if the study had been conducted in Australia. Such images desensitise and also legitimise violence as a form of conflict resolution. Advances in technology now also allow for access to violent images through the internet and social media, as well as on increasingly realistic computer games.

Over 3000 studies conducted around the world have made a clear connection between violent behaviour and exposure to on-screen violence. Are young Australians becoming desensitised to violence? According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the number of recorded assaults over the past decade has risen considerably, and the rate of increase is significantly greater for children under 15 years of age. The entertainment industry unwilling limit the level of violence that children can now so easily access, exposure must be carefully monitored by parents. Should governments also act, in the common good?

Perhaps it is not Dostoevsky who is able to confer a semblance of explanation but another Russian novelist, Alexandre Kuprin. Bruce Guthrie recently cited Kuprin’s words to explain the depth of the problem we now face. “The horror,” wrote Kuprin “is that there is no horror.”

The senseless quality of violence in modern Australia should horrify. When it no longer shocks, the impetus for change is lost.

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