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Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Few Thoughts on British Knife Phobia

Confiscated weapons--over half look like common kitchen knives.

In the United States, we have recurrent hysteria over handguns. In Great Britain, where legal ownership of firearms is severely restricted, hysteria over handguns has been replaced by hysteria over knives. A Google search of the term "knife crime" turns up articles from the British press such as these, which often use sensationalistic headlines and skewed statistics to create a sense of crisis:

"Can the Fight Against Teenage Knife Crime Be Won?"
"14,000 Knife Victims a Year"
"Knife Crime Doubles in 2 Years"

I don't mean to make light of the horrific crimes discussed in these articles. Britain, which had one of the lowest crime rates on earth 50 years ago, has seen street crime escalate dramatically in the last two decades. Whatever the reason for this, surely it can't be the availability of knives. As one commenter at a blog wrote:
At my secondary school in Kent in the eighties a Swiss Army knife (4-inch blade) was part of the school uniform requirements and if you were involved with the cadets [high school ROTC], on those days you wore the cadet uniform to school (at least one day a week) that uniform had a 7- or 8-inch blade army knife. Yet the only knife related incident I can remember during my 7 years at the school was an accident in the woodworking area when a student used his penknife instead of a chisel. Oh how things have changed in 30 years!
In Great Britain, birthplace of the Boy Scouts, "scouts are no longer supposed to carry knives."

Those who would seek to ban guns in the US will say, “Their only purpose is to kill people,” but what can one say about knives, a tool that most of us use several times a day, with a dozen or more on hand in our kitchens? Granted, newspaper articles like to feature photos of knives with brass knuckles or other such embellishments, but such knives inflict no more injury than does a typical paring knife--there is no significant difference. Crime statistics tell us that most stabbings are not committed with purpose-designed weapons, but with cheap steak knives, screw drivers, and box cutters.

Britain braces for new Weapon of Mass Destruction--the Giant Swiss Army Knife!

Campaigning against "knife crime" is like campaigning against "blunt-object crime"--you’re demonizing a commonplace object that men have had since the Stone Age. What the British are really concerned about, of course, is not "knife crime" but just plain crime--the use of the modifier "knife" serves mainly to take the onus off the human perpetrators and affix it to their tools. When it comes to political correctness, the British are years ahead of us in America, and rather than deal with their social decay they prefer to focus on inanimate objects. This leads to some rather absurd behavior. I read of a 61-year old disabled traveler who was arrested because he had a Swiss Army knife in the glove compartment of his vehicle; I know of a Scottish craftsman who makes expensive traditional swords who had to fight to be allowed to stay in business; I have seen a photograph of pinking shears and crochet hooks on display in Dunelm Mill, a British department store, under a sign saying you must be over 25 to buy them. In perhaps the most ridiculous case, a British inventor got a patent on an "anti-stab knife," which comes with a blunt tip.

The patented Stab-Proof Knife.

The British have long had a love-hate relationship with personal weapons. The right to keep and bear arms was established in the Middle Ages under English Common Law and England was one of the first European nations where common people--not merely aristocrats--carried weapons. These weapons were not likely to be costly swords, but generally a dagger or quarterstaff.

During the Renaissance, the fashion for dueling infected the English aristocracy as strongly as it did that of the Continent, but it wore off sooner. By the early 19th century, duels with deadly weapons were no longer tolerated in England. German students might still give each other ugly but superficial wounds with the schlager, and Frenchmen and Italians might poke at each other with épées in carefully controlled duels, but the British settled their differences with their fists, under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. From their literature, it is evident that they associated this development with their innate moral superiority--their society had evolved past the needless blood-letting provoked by outmoded codes of personal honor. Hot-blooded Latins might resort to cowardly, assassin-like knives, as did the wretched Colonials in the American South, but an Englishman fights fair and square with the weapons God gave him! Here is an excerpt from a defense of pugilism in the Literary Magazine, published in 1806:
In countries where boxing is unknown, the modes of resenting injuries resorted to by the common people are full of danger and ferocity. In Italy, the stiletto is not only the weapon of the hired assassin, but is also kept ready in the bosom of the respectable citizen, to be plunged into the heart of his friend or neighbour upon any sudden provocation from anger, or motive of revenge. 
Or this, from Merrie England: Its Sports and Pastimes by Lord William Pitt Lennox:
While human nature is constituted as it is, and ever has been, there will be brawls and fighting. And see the effects of such quarrels where boxing and the laws of the ring are not recognised: the knife and stiletto supply the place of the fists.
I have previously posted about the English view of knives here, here, and here.

The London Times published an article on November 14, 1856, under a headline that looks like it could have come out last week. It attributes the majority of "knife crime" to foreigners on English soil; i.e., Germans and Italian nationals discharged from the British Foreign Legion, a unit which existed briefly during the Crimean War (1854-1856).

The old Spanish war-cry of "War to the knife" is now sounding with a witness throughout the streets of London. Our own national habits are bad enough in many respects. We have every day to lament the occurrence of outrages of the most brutal character in the lanes and by ways of the metropolis; but, at least, in only a fractional percentage of cases are deadly weapons deliberately used by the ruffians who raise their hands against their wives and their companions. That is bad enough. We have therefore no wish to borrow from foreign countries their worst customs, and to see our streets made the arena for an exhibition of the art of assassination as practised among all nations. Happily this specific change in the character of London crime can be traced to a specific and transitory cause. The use of the knife is almost entirely confined to the men who have been discharged from the foreign legions, so we may trust, if the evil be dealt with at once and with a firm hand, ere it have time to take root, that we shall fall back again upon our own old and abominable habit of knocking each other down, with the usual addition of kicking, pommelling, bruising, and so forth. Bad as all this may be--disgraceful as it is in the highest degree to our country and to our age--the ruffian's clenched fist is undoubtedly a lesser evil than the assassin's drawn knife. Is there no way of getting rid of these discharged Legionaries altogether, or at least of as many of them as cannot show good reason for their further sojourn among us, or produce sound guarantees of character and respectability? Arbitrary acts may be justified by necessity, and we should be content to rest our justification in this instance upon the facts contained in our police reports of yesterday. It is really too bad that respectable women cannot walk along our streets without being chased hither and thither by some vagabond with a drawn knife in his hand; that our unarmed policemen should be stabbed while acting in the discharge of their duty; and that our labouring men cannot enter a public-house to get a pint of beer without danger of life. As facts are stronger than all reasonings upon such a point, we will give as concisely as may be the substance of a few stabbing cases which were the day before yesterday brought under the notice of the metropolitan magistrates.

These reports represent the performances of a single day.

At the Guildhall, Frederick Voight, a discharged private of the British German Legion, was charged before Alderman Copeland with attempting to stab Mrs. Sarah Garrett. On Tuesday evening, between 8 and 9 o'clock, the complainant and her sister were walking down Holborn-hill when the prisoner came up to them, said something in German, and attempted to catch hold, first of one, and then of other. In reply to this insult Mrs. Garrett gave him a slap on the face. The prisoner took this quietly enough at first, and walked on, but presently he came back, and said, "You slapped my face?"

Mrs. Garrett replied, "Yes; I would slap the face of any man that would insult me."

Voight then pulled out a knife, and, threatening her with it, chased her across the street; her sister fled in another direction. She ran into a shop, the owner of which, a German, did not render her any assistance, nor attempt in any way to defend her. Luckily a policeman was at hand, and the ruffian was secured. At the close  of the proceedings the chief clerk told the magistrate that this was the second case of the kind which had been brought to this court from the Foreign Legions. We now pass on to Worship-street. The same day Minette Luigi, lately a private in the Anglo-Italian Legion at Malta, was brought before Mr. Hammill for a stabbing matter. The prisoner had entered a public-house in Whitechapel with two other men, when some misunderstanding appears to have arisen among them about a sixpence which had been dropped on the ground. The prisoner at once drew his knife, and made a stab at his companion. The man jumped up and ran out of the door, calling out "Oh! my God; he has got a knife."

The prisoner then turned upon a coal porter named William Siggens, who happened to be on the spot, and endeavoured to stab him in the chest.

The porter struggled with him, got him down upon the ground and was found by a policeman kneeling upon the Italian's arm, by which means he had prevented him from using his knife. The instrument, which was produced in court, was a very formidable one, and was obviously intended for exportation to the States, as upon the blade was engraved the following inscription: "Americans must and shall rule America!" [This was a slogan of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” movement in the US in the 1850s. There was a Mansfield-Sheffield bowie which carried this inscription.] The interpreter in this case told the sitting magistrate that he was now employed in a case of a similar kind at the Mansion-house, and was also interpreter in a third case, in which the person who had been stabbed had died of his wounds.

The same day, at the Thames Police-office, Joseph Manosi was brought before Mr. Self, charged with attempting to stab Thomas Venables, a police-constable. In the course of the investigation the magistrate was informed that "there are about 50 men belonging to the British-Italian Legion prowling about Stepney and Whitechapel, and they are all armed with bowie-knives and stilettos."

Upon the knife taken from the prisoner were inscribed the words, "The Real American Knife." It bore the name and address of the manufacturers, "William Jackson and Co., Shef Island Works, Sheffield." The prisoner was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. We grieve to add, that in our impression of yesterday, from which we have taken the cases above mentioned, we find also a provincial notice in which we are informed that Simon Hansen, the Norwegian sailor who was stabbed last Friday at Cardiff, is just dead. In this instance two British subjects are charged with the perpetration of the offence, and we very earnestly trust, if found guilty, that they may receive the full measure of punishment which the law can award to so heinous and dastardly an act.
While the 1856 Times article deplores the use of knives, it puts the blame squarely where it belongs--on the criminals. In its concluding paragraph, it recommends that foreign-born knife-wielders be swiftly deported and bemoans the fact that native knife-wielders can no longer be sent to penal colonies, that policy having been recently ended. It does not suggest as a solution that knives be banned or their blades limited to under three inches.


  1. Hi Paul

    I agree. The majority of the "Knife problems" are hyped up to a near frenzied pace by the media, and the usual knee-jerk response by the powers that be is to ban everything! Its a nonsense - you'd have to ban every piece of plastic, wood and bits of tin you could find. Impossible.

    As you say its the people that are the problem not so much the implement. What I do get angry with - and what I have commented on in the past - are certain individuals that teach "knife combat" to anyone who just walks into a training hall without a thought to if they have a criminal background, part of a gang, underage, mentally disturbed.

    That is the real problem. Getting a sharpy less so.

    Great site btw. Keep up the good work

    Dave A


  2. Interesting. I think our times are continually innovating because people are brilliant. Because guns are illegal to carry around, people have turned to knives. Now that the knives are prohibited to be carried around, I wouldn't be surprised if another tool can either be invented or turned to for assaulting.

  3. I'm afraid that someone armed with an 18-inch piece of 3/4-inch rebar can do at least as much damage as a man with a knife. You can't keep every sharp or blunt object out of the hands of a miscreant.

  4. Hel, I'd rather have the 18 inch piece of repar instead of a kitchen knife!