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Read them the Riot Act
August 11, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Is that phrase still used? When I was growing up it meant to give someone a thorough dressing down.
It can't have escaped anyone's notice that England is burning. There are riots, not just in London but in many other towns across the UK. Police response is anemic and uncertain, mostly limited to trying weakly, to keep the assaults, looting, and arson within certain areas. The authorities are agonizing over whether to use water canon, as if someone had proposed nuking those areas.
Owners of shops carrying desirable goods in those areas are understandably upset.
I think they need to read them the Riot Act.
No, I don't mean severely criticize them. I mean that civil order depends on people knowing what to expect when they act in certain ways. Most people will pretty much do what they think they can get away with, one need look no further than this for "root causes" of civil unrest.
The Riot Act was passed in 1714 during a time of great civil unrest in Britain, and was on the statute books until 1973. It defined what a riot was, 12 or more people "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together," and provided for a defined, measured, and known response.
That is the essence of law in a civilized society, that the nature of the offense and the consequences thereof are consistent and widely known. Beyond a certain minimum, it is more important that the law be consistent than it make perfect sense or strive for perfect justice, or how else could people plan their lives from day to day?
Reading the Riot Act meant that a public official would proclaim to the mob:
"Our Sovereign Lord the King/Queen chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King/Queen!"
The mob had one hour to disperse. Failing to do so was a felony, punishable but sanctions up to death without benefit of clergy, which might be administered on the spot by massed volley fire.
Most people today would regard this as excessive, and I am NOT saying the response should be that extreme. But the point is, people need to know unambiguously what to expect when they set out to loot and burn.
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