Sunday National, 21st November 2021.
“Two nations separated by a common language” was how George Bernard Shaw described our relationship with the United States. In some ways, America can seem beguilingly accessible for English speakers. Through TV and film, we’re saturated in American culture. Other political systems are sealed away behind a wall of words. American public life, by contrast, can seem superficially transparent. You can watch president debates for yourself, tune in to court proceedings and watch Congress being stormed – all in live time.
Like many political obsessives on this side of the pond, I go through phases of being grimly fascinated by what’s going on in that country. But the superficial accessibility of the United States has always struck me as a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp. You can understand the words people are saying, but not always what they mean by them. You can listen to what politicians and pundits are saying, but not with the same ear as the domestic audience. Intellectually, you might understand the legacies of racial injustice in America and know a bit about the history of the struggle for civil rights – but most of us don’t really get it. Perceiving the outline isn’t feeling the real texture.
You can end up ignoring the political substance too. For folk on the left of British politics, intensely conservative political figures like Barack Obama or even – god help us – Hilary Clinton can become progressive poster boys, because their version of American centrism isn’t the ostentatiously racist, homophobic, rent-seeking variety which characterises the Republican Party and its thrifty philosophy of making the rich richer, and devil take the hindmost.
The case of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin is one of those stories which underscores just how stunningly alien American life can seem from this side of the Atlantic. The facts of the case are wild and tragic. The story is full of details which are utterly confounding.
Transplant what happened in Kenshoa, Winsconsin on the 25th of August last year to Scotland. Imagine there was a major protest in Glasgow after the death of a person of colour in police custody. Imagine the mood at this protest is souring and Police Scotland are struggling to maintain public order. Imagine a 17-year-old decided to travel from Birmingham to Glasgow to embroil himself in this civil disorder, supposedly to “defend” a used car dealership in the city.
Imagine this cop cadet convinces a friend in Glasgow to illegally acquire him a semi-automatic A-15 rifle, armed with which he begins wandering around the town, a cosplay vigilante but with live ammunition. Imagine he uses this piece of military hardware to shoot dead two people who confront him, and blows away the greater part of a third man’s bicep, narrowly avoiding adding a third body to his bloody tally.
Having elected to put himself in this dangerous situation, having materially enhanced the danger by arming up before hitting the streets, imagine he argued he had acted in “self-defence” by gunning down one man who attacked him with a skateboard, and another who tried to wrestle the gun off him with nothing more threatening in his possession than a bag of medicine.
Imagine this hypothetical teenager not only faced no legal consequences for his gun possession, but emerges from his murder and attempted murder trial – with three men’s blood on his hands and two deaths on his conscience – feted by some parts of the press as some kind of political hero and modern patriot.
Best I can reckon, this is what happened in Wisconsin this week, as the baby-faced Rittenhouse, now 18 years old, walked free from court. Wisconsin law allows people to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” the violence is “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” Notwithstanding everything he did to put himself in danger, notwithstanding the obvious peril of marching into a riot with a soldier’s weapon – the jury seem to have bought the idea the boy was genuinely fearful for his life, and his homicides were justified.
Most American states have “stand your ground” laws, which don’t even require self-defenders to make use of reasonable avenues of escape before opening fire. Scots law is different. Self-defence really does have to be last resort. Juries here would also have to consider the issue of proportionality. Was the violence used really “necessary for your own safety”? If not, you’d be going down for murder rather that walking out into the sunshine.
It tells you something about the level of violence and anxiety in a society that what Rittenhouse did could be regarded as reasonable, even taking account of his young age. The Scottish Sentencing Council has recently issued an important new guideline on how the courts here should sentence younger people. It is an interesting statement of principle, informed not just by legal ideas, but by research and reflection on the best evidence about the physical and psychological development of young people, and their gradual cognitive and emotional maturity.
The studies show that brain development continues right up until the age of 25 and beyond. Many cultural clichés about youngsters are borne out by the evidence from clinical psychologists. Young folk are more risk-inclined, less able to reason through the consequences of their actions, more vulnerable to negative influences such as peer pressure and exploitation. Mercifully, most don’t make decisions like Rittenhouse’s. And because of our restrictions on firearms, most can’t.
It is one good news story you probably haven’t heard. From being the “murder capital of western Europe,” in the last ten years, the number of homicides in Scotland has actually fallen by 40%. At the turn of the millennium, there were routinely well over 100 killings a year here, with a spike of 134 in 2005 alone. Last year we recorded the lowest number of unlawful deaths in forty years, with 55 identified victims of homicide. Historically, Scotland often drew an unfavourable contrast with Nordic neighbours of a similar size and much lower incidences of violence – despite the popularity of Scandinoir. Norway recorded just 31 homicides last year, Denmark 49.
It goes without saying this is 55 too many victims of violence. Some of the decline in deaths seems likely be down to the skilful hands and quick thinking of ambulance men and women, and the doctors and surgeons in our accident and emergency departments. But the numbers also represent significant progress on the levels of interpersonal violence Scots are vising on one another compared even to 10 years ago.
Firearms barely feature in Scotland’s murder stats. After the appalling tragedy of Dunblane twenty-five years ago, there have only be a handful of gun deaths a year. Since 2011, there have only been three years when more than two victims of gun violence were recorded. So much for Scotland. How does that compare to our American counterparts?
The states of Colorado and Minnesota have roughly the same population as Scotland, and routinely record homicide levels which dramatically exceed the worst numbers Scotland ever recorded. Colorado saw 302 homicides in 2020, 205 of which involved guns. Minnesota recorded 222 homicides in the same year, 200 of them involving guns.
We’re so used to “no mean city” clichés about urban Scotland – and the continuing prevalence of cultural figure of the Glasgow hard man who is handy with his fists – it is easy to overlook just how far the violence of everyday life in Scotland – and much of the rest of Europe – now diverges from the United States. Land of the free and home of the brave? It looks pretty terrifying to me.