The Grave and the Constant

I am walking down the street, and I am feeling uncomfortable. It is cold, so I have my coat buttoned up. I am outside and alone, so I have headphones on: guitars and Norwegians, screaming at me. I am always going to feel uncomfortable, but that is not what is happening tonight. Tonight. Night time.

The darkness does not worry me: I am six foot two, of large enough build not to be scared of being hit any more. I have the hardened, bearded face of a Viking; I’m surprised people don’t cross the street to avoid me. I am the biggest and the scariest thing on the street right now; is that why I feel so very uncomfortable walking down this quiet residential street alone, at night? I am not alone.

Ahead of me is another pedestrian; I saw them coming out of a building at the top of the street. A solicitor or an accountant; out of an office, either way. At the bottom of this street is a car park.

I feel very uncomfortable now. I can’t quite place it. I have nothing to fear; I am going to the shop to buy some milk and some cheese: I am making a cheese sauce to go with cauliflower. Then I get it. I understand why I feel uncomfortable. The person ahead of me, the one who holds her bag close, who keeps looking over her shoulder every few steps, who walks faster than normal, is a woman.

She has no reason to know that she has no reason to be scared, but that’s the world we live in. She has no reason to know that the hardest labour I am capable of is tackling a spreadsheet, and running some analysis. She has no reason to know that I am not a rapist or a mugger, just someone popping to the shops.

Crime is a question of opportunity, and as far as this person was concerned, I had the opportunity to commit a crime about her person. I would never see that opportunity, let alone take it, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel that incriminating finger every time this situation arises; and it arises a lot.

Usually, when in this position, I try to cross the street, or accelerate past, or cough loudly to myself, so it is clear that I am not sneaking up on anyone. It is my projection of their perception of my intent. As complicated as that sounds I am just trying to be nice: I see myself as scary, so I try to empathise with the people whom I expect to find me scary when they see me. How incredibly English am I?

This is not a joke; not even close. This is something we need to talk about or things will get worse.

As far as I am concerned there are two types of crime: pre-meditated and opportunistic. The bulk of crimes, the bulk of criminals, fit the opportunistic mould. Let’s work this through with an example:

A pre-meditated mugger goes looking for someone vulnerable. They scour the streets for someone to relieve of their coin: a child wandering alone; a woman left behind by her friends; someone drunk, and leaving the orbit of our sober society. We all know what comes next; at least it’s only money.

An opportunistic mugger is someone who happens to come upon an opportunity to increase their own personal wealth. They look around to make sure that no one is looking; then they grab what they can. They often consider themselves to be lucky, rather than criminals. Then they leave.

In fact, both are criminals, but we all already knew that. The fact that the latter can look themselves in a mirror and not believe they have done anything wrong is a failing in how society regards money.

Now imagine that such an opportunist had been left with, and had sexually assaulted, one of the vulnerable people I mentioned above. Would their crimes have seemed quite so innocent?

Opportunist and pre-meditated: one is the reason we keep our doors and windows locked; the other is the reason we don’t shout about our up-coming holiday plans while standing in our gardens. There could always be someone reconnoitring the area for potential criminal enterprise, whether in the short term or the long. My mother in law perennially leaves her back doors open. It terrifies me.

Since I was a small boy I have lived in the constant fear of crime, even though I have not experienced anything more serious than being mugged for a pound in our local town centre some time in the late 1980s. I see the wicked finger of crime everywhere around me, and I have felt genuinely paralysed by it, in the past. I feel like I have a handle on that now, but largely through knowing more about it.

While the 24-hour news media keeps the threat of criminal action at the forefront of our minds, it does very little to inform us about the world around us. The older I get, the more I come to realise that I have not been beaten up, or robbed, or stabbed; therefore, while it is certainly not impossible, it is certainly possible that I won’t be today. That is as close to comforting as my mind gets.

I know that, whether or not I had the opportunity, I am not about to sexually assault someone; that isn’t me. However, would I pick up a wad of cash I found on the street? Would I lift a piece of tech I had seen someone leave behind on a train? It probably says a lot about me that I may do precisely that. Looking the victim in the eye has a lot to do with it: I am a coward, but I am also greedy.

Our attitudes towards crime is a function of our knowledge of it, but it is not a linear relationship. In the same way that knowing that I have not been attacked makes me feel more comfortable, it is not true that knowing men are more likely to be attacked than women makes me feel less comfortable. Knowing too much can be as harmful as too little: hermeticism, as opposed to wide-eyed innocence.

Fear is rarely based on fact, it is based on the information or experiences we have most recently had. When the news is chock full of stories about terror attacks, the public’s fear of terror goes up: the risk has not necessarily changed, only the knowledge of its existence. It is irrational, but it is faultlessly human.

Really though, all I want is a flashing sign I can wear around my neck which reads “I mean you no harm”.

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