25 MARCH 2000, Page 22

Second opinion

EVERYONE assumes that if there were any justice in the world, they would be better off; which is rather odd because it is perfectly clear that, if there were any justice in the world, millions of our fel- low countrymen would starve to death at once and hundreds of thousands would receive life-sentences with no possibility of parole or remission.

Some people think I exaggerate, but I speak only the most literal and self- evident truth. For example, yesterday I heard about four young candidates (if justice were ever to be done) for perpet- ual incarceration. My patient from whom I heard about them was a meek young man with a club foot; but the world into which he was born was not one that deals kindly with those who exhibit any weak- ness, physical or mental. One day, while he was limping to work, he was kid- napped from the street by four young toughs, bundled into a car and a balacla- va pulled over his head.

He was then driven to an unknown destination, where his ankles were tied and he was suspended upside-down from the ceiling. He was beaten from side to side for several hours by his kidnappers, with the purpose of extracting a promise from him to take a bank loan of £5,000 which he would then hand over to them: or else, of course.

Returning to his own home, an apart- ment in a tower block, he had from fear refused to leave it ever since, but had nevertheless grown claustrophobic in the mean proportions of its rooms. The per- fect solution was to take an overdose of pills and call an ambulance; for even our thugs have not yet learnt to attack people as they are wheeled into an ambulance, though no doubt this will come soon enough.

I would hardly have believed his story had he not borne the marks of his beat- ing, and had I not heard before on sever- al occasions of people kidnapped and tortured in special chambers hidden in the city (mostly run by drug dealers for their clients who fail to honour their financial obligations). The British people have taken over where mediaeval witchfinders left off. What is the appro- priate punishment for the four torturers of my patient's story, if not a life on the treadmill or at the oar?

Of course, justice has sometimes to be tempered by mercy and forbearance. For example, the other day in the prison I was called to the cell of a man who had just been attacked in his sleep by his cell- mate. One side of his face was complete- ly — as the prisoners themselves would put it — mashed. His eye was closed, one side of his upper lip was swollen, a cou- ple of his teeth were now missing, pre- sumed swallowed. It had been a ferocious attack, with no holds barred. Had the officers not heard the pounding inside the cell and come to his rescue, the man could have lost his life.

By the time I reached him he was groaning.

'Are you going to prefer charges against him?' I asked.

'No,' he said.

The quality of mercy is not strained but droppeth as the gentle rain etc., I thought.

'Why not?' I asked.

Theodore Dalrymple

Mass Listeria by Theodore Dalrymple can be ordered for ,f8.99 post-free in the UK through The Spectator Bookshop. Please telephone 0541 557288 (ref SP020).