ARMED ROBBERY (Coming soon to a town near you…)

J. Wallis Martin
(The Times – 19.03.02)

“How will I know if I’m okay to shoot someone?”
    Dieter Schallen, the firearms instructor who was teaching me to handle the Smith & Wesson .38 Special that I’d bought a few weeks earlier, replied:”Don’t worry lady. If ever you’re in a situation that calls for you to shoot, you’ll never have to ask yourself that question.”
    Eight months later, I had good cause to remember him telling me that. My husband and I had been living in Johannesburg for six years, but despite the statistics relating to violent crime, neither of us felt the need to own a gun. That changed for me as soon as my son was born. I was often alone in the house, and I felt I owed it to him to have some means of protecting us both.
    In 1991, Johannesburg was the murder capital of the world. Friends, neighbours and colleagues all had a story to tell, but what people feared most was an armed robbery on the home. It was, after all, the ultimate violation bar rape, and often, the victims were murdered.
    So far, we had been lucky, but our luck ran out in January 1992 after three armed men murdered a security guard in Park Town, then drove down the Nichol Highway to Bryanston. Our house was the first they came to after taking the slip road, and they scaled a twelve foot wall topped with razor wire to get into the garden. Needless to say, they caught me home alone.
    By the time I realised what was happening, there wasn’t time to call the police. The best I could do was press a panic alarm to alert a security firm, but even as I did it, I knew they wouldn’t get to me in time to be of any practical use. They might manage to stop the robbery in progress, but I and my son could well be dead by then. I was going to have to stand and fight when what I really wanted to do was run.
    What stopped me was the realisation that I wouldn’t get very far carrying a 15 month old child. Besides, where was I going to run to? The razor wire and walls that are supposed to keep robbers out are actually more effective at keeping you in, so I grabbed my gun and went to the front of the house. (I’d like to be able to say I grabbed the gun from a safe – the truth is, like a lot of people, I kept it, fully-loaded, on a shelf in the wardrobe, because as anyone who has lived in a country where law and order has broken down will tell you – a gun is absolutely no good to you in a safe. This is why so many people end up shooting their partner in the heat of an argument, and why so many children manage to kill themselves with their parent’s gun. It is also why so many firearms end up in the hands of the very people they were designed to protect their owners from.)
    At this point, I did something stupid – easy to do when you’re not exactly trained to deal with a situation like this: I opened a bedroom window and shouted to let them know I’d seen them. The response was instant. One of them raised his gun. My response was even more instant: I shot him.
    The minute I fired the gun, two of the robbers ran, but the third just clutched his arm and started yelling abuse. Something else Deiter said came flooding back to me: “If you shoot a guy, you’d better make sure you kill him, because now he’ll be real mad at you.”
    By the time Ryder Security got to the house, the robbers were gone. A short while later, the police arrived, and the cop who took my statement said, “You need to watch yourself now. If you wounded one of them, they may come back for you.”
    It was one of the most worrying things anybody has ever said to me. It was also one of the most accurate, because they did in fact come back, though not for several weeks. During that time, my husband and I kept firearms by our bed and we waited. We expected them in the middle of the night, and we told ourselves we were ready for them. In fact, they came in the middle of a dinner party, and we weren’t ready for them at all.
    This time, the robbers decided to force someone who worked for us to ring the door bell. They planned to barge in when the door was opened to him. It probably would have worked if not for them setting off a light sensor as they walked past the dining room window. I recognised one of the robbers and my reaction brought the dinner party to an immediate halt.
    Our guests were Afrikaners who worked for First National Bank. They had driven in from Pretoria, and all four of them were armed. The minute the door bell rang, they knew what the robbers were planning, and they went into the kind of routine that I suppose must be second nature to men who have fought in Angola. One of them opened the door, and another shot the robber who plunged into the hall. He was killed instantly. The second robber was shot on the patio and died within the hour. The third got away, but was subsequently caught.
    When the police interviewed him, they discovered that he and the two men with him were responsible for the robbery in Park Town. It was fairly safe to assume that if they’d succeeded in getting into the house, none of us would have been left alive to identify or testify against them.
    Some months after the incident, I spoke to Dr. Bernard Levinson, a psychiatrist who counselled prisoners on Pretoria’s death row. I asked him what, in his view, motivated people to kill during the course of a robbery. Was it fear, anger, a desire to stay free no matter what, or a mixture of the three?
    He replied that the issue was far more complex than people realised. A robber who is cornered may well kill out of fear or a desire to remain free, and some individuals will do whatever is necessary to ensure the success of the robbery – including killing those who stand in their way. But for some people, the whole point of the exercise is to kill, and robbery is a secondary motivation. (The same is true of sex offenders – the crime has more to do with power and control than a desire for sexual gratification.) These people have usually been abandoned by a parent and/or abused, or have witnessed the violent death of somebody close to them – a parent, or sibling. Levinson believed they could be treated and rehabilitated. (It has long been my experience that psychiatrists, like the clergy, have extraordinary faith.)
    Those of us who are safely ensconced in some white, middle-class enclave may be tempted to console ourselves with the thought that none of this is our problem, and that we can continue to enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside, safe in the knowledge that it will never be impeded by twelve foot walls topped with razor wire. Unless, of course, we accept Levinson’s contention that the conditions that spawn this breed of killer are not specific to countries where law and order has broken down, but take root where even a relatively small section of the community has become alienated from the rest of society.
    I am reminded of an observation made by the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, during a speech he gave at Leicester University on March 6th:

“In Inner London, our research shows that there are about 30 to 40 youths on each borough who have grown up in care in an environment of physical and sexual abuse. Each and every one – and our research was done in Southwark – had been abused, and when they had reported offences they had been ignored or enquiries had not been successful. These youths have been excluded from school for four or five years and have never experienced any form of parental control. Some wouldn’t even recognise their parents if they met them in the street. Is it any wonder they become desensitised to society’s norms and decencies?”

Some days ago, I was asked what I felt was the difference between violent crime in South Africa, and violent crime in Great Britain.
    About ten years, I’d say.