IN ALL disasters, the rubble attracts rats. Whether it is physical and fatal, like the Christchurch earthquake, or metaphysical and mystical, like the Paul Henry affair, there are always ferals prepared to feed on the misery of others.
When these rodents are eventually apprehended and exposed to the light, we are always amazed by how nondescript and petty they seem. As was the case with Arie Smith – Cornelis Arie Smith-Voorkamp to give him his full title – the 25-year-old arrested for looting a damaged house days after the Canterbury tragedy.
In fact, the published photos accentuated such feral features – an unusual angularity offset by a blackened eye and the demeanour of one who spends much of his life in the darkness. Overnight, Arie Smith became the face of looting, and a figure of public contempt.
So his elevation to liberal cause of the day – a kind of white Ahmed Zaoui – has perplexed many observers and especially folk from Christchurch. His cause is now actively promoted by PC wets like Mediawatch's Russell Brown and cause lawyers like Simon Buckingham.
Their agitation occurred after members of Arie Smith's foster family argued that his being remanded in prison was unfair because their foster sibling suffered from the behavioural/psychological disorder known as Asperger's syndrome.
This apparently had compelled Smith to go out one Christchurch night and liberate/loot light fittings. When apprehended by an emergency police patrol, such booty was found in his possession along, allegedly, with burglary tools.
It is important to note that his foster siblings did not claim that Smith should not have been arrested, nor that he had not done something wrong, nor that he did not know right from wrong. They simply argued that jail was the wrong place for a young man with an odd condition and an obsessive compulsion to collect light fittings.
In fact, I ended up introducing Smith's case to my radio audience and asking whether the public concurred with the family's viewpoint. It would be fair to say that Christchurch callers had a less charitable view – especially given that many of them were now guarding their homes against the likely depredations of the looting rats.
Both Arie Smith's sister, and his genetic mother, called the show. His mother identified herself as a schizophrenic and explained that this serious mental illness had its impact upon her son's upbringing. His sister confirmed that Arie was independent, able to look after himself without any care, but addicted to light fittings.
And so the story might have ended there, after a healthy debate as to whether compulsion is an excuse for crime. It is not.
But then Brown and others, in that great intellectual void known as the blogosphere, started arguing that not only was Smith entitled to special treatment on account of his Asperger's, but he had also been brutally assaulted once in custody. Indeed, the black eye served as their autocue to attack the police.
Interestingly, lawyer Buckingham repeated the same claim, but a day later. Again, public sympathy was urged ahead of Smith's appearance in the Christchurch District Court to hear a new application for bail. This time, police did not oppose his release.
At this moment Buckingham announced that his client was unlikely to offer any formal complaint as to any alleged police indiscretions. Smith would not be up to any inquiry that might quiz him for the truth, he explained. Asperger's, you see.
Meaning that the taint of police brutality is allowed to remain. We do not know if the injuries were sustained in his arrest, or in Smith's resisting arrest – or, indeed, if the police had anything to do with them.
Certainly there is a feeling in Christchurch that he was bloody lucky that he received only a black eye. Some of the informal citizens patrols, established in the wake of the earthquake, would not have been so charitable.
And then there was the natural resentment that while tens of thousands of Christchurch citizens sat in the dark, without water, sewerage, electricity or regular meals, the looters were banged up in a secure place with all the aforementioned amenities. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, it might well have been more comfortable being the rat.
But the Arie Smith affair does raise the wider issue of whether having a psychological/behavioural disorder can ever be an excuse for crime. The "oh, you poor dear" response from too many bleeding hearts is exactly why New Zealand's justice system is so weak and ineffective – and why the rights of criminals are considered more important than the rights of their victims.
Smith has Asperger's. Big deal. It was not severe enough for him to require care, nor for him not to be unaware that stealing was wrong. So he had a compulsion. Many people do. But they don't take advantage of others' misery or exploit a natural disaster to satisfy that compulsion.
In the end, justice has been done, blackened eye and all. Now let's similarly identify the other Christchurch looters and mete out similar justice.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Click for the latest subscription offer
What to do - and who to call - if your delivery doesn't arrive