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The recession is no excuse for sin

20 May 2009

Trevor Barnes reflects on what it means to become a crime statistic

HE CAME like a thief in the night. Of course he did: after all, he was a thief operating at night time, and choosing my high privet hedge to hide be­hind, my window to prise open with a screwdriver, and my sit­ting room to pad around in be­fore helping himself to what­ever valuables he could carry.

Meanwhile, I, supposedly a light sleeper, slum­bered upstairs, unaware of the nocturnal pres­­ence of a stranger who was switching on my desk-light, opening drawers, rifling through cupboards, and helping himself to my laptop, camera, wallet, and TV, be­fore making off into the darkness as silently as he had arrived.

Now, I have no desire to alarm you, but he is probably planning a similar sortie very soon — perhaps even tonight, in a street near yours. And you would never guess it, but if public predictions are to be believed, the credit crunch is partly to blame.

Recovering from my loss, I reread with in­creased interest the latest official crime figures for England and Wales, published last month in the British Crime Survey, and was dismayed to see a four-per-cent increase in burglary since the economic recession took hold. But it is less the statistics themselves that appal as the public pro­nouncements that accompany them.

Increasingly, the orthodoxy promoted by semi-official spokespersons from politicians to police officers is that we should expect more burglaries and break-ins as the recession bites. Absent from this thinking is the evidently preposterous notion that those who live in reduced circumstances might choose to obey the law rather than steal from someone else to get money.

It is a moral softening-up process we are seeing more and more often. For instance, while we have rushed to point our fingers at the bankers and the politicians for the financial mess we are in, we have conveniently omitted ourselves from the equation of blame and responsibility. Like gam­blers blaming the bookies for their addiction, we have blithely exonerated ourselves of any com­plicity in the crash. Why blame ourselves for bor­rowing so recklessly, when we can blame others for lending so temptingly?

In a comfortably-off corner of west London last week, I saw one of those dispiriting police notice­boards advising a whole street to be extra vigilant in protecting itself against a pre­dicted upsurge in break-ins. Sensible advice, no doubt, but a depres­sing sign of our times.

Arguably more worrying, however, is the hard­en­ing assumption that such wrongdoing can be explained away by circumstances. To subscribe to such a position is to lose sight of the unequivocal nature of the Eighth Commandment — Thou shalt not steal — and to hedge it around with so many ifs and buts that morality and personal responsib­ility become, at best, optional extras in our lives, and, at worst, outdated and irrelevant abstractions.

No doubt, many of those who recently formed an orderly queue at a defective cashpoint in Hull felt a degree of entitlement to the £100 they with­drew for every £50 they keyed in. Indeed, one taxi driver, disappointed to arrive as the notes ran out, was quoted as saying, “It was the ultimate Buy One Get One Free — and I missed out.”

Many of those trousering their jackpot will have been schooled into believing that this un­expected windfall was just a stroke of good luck, shorn of any moral implications. Of course, it could be argued that this was simply a failure of imagin­ation: a failure to realise that, if the extra money was not theirs, it was . . . er . . . someone else’s.

How long will it be, I wonder, before we start similarly arguing that opportunistic night-sneaks, like the one who walked into my home, are just doing their bit to weather the recession?

Trevor Barnes is a religious-affairs reporter for the BBC.

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