The death of 18-year-old Daniel Christie, following an assault in Kings Cross on New Year's Eve, has renewed debate regarding governmental responses to alcohol-fuelled violence. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell is reportedly being urged to introduce uniform 3am closing times for hotels and 1am lockouts.
It is rare to go out in Sydney on a Saturday night and not see a fight, or at least the pretence of one, but to fail to come across any form of aggression at all is impossible. Even "family friendly" destinations such as Darling Harbour are not immune to frequent "scuffles".
However, to simply blame alcohol for the deaths of Daniel Christie and, eighteen months prior, Thomas Kelly, is to overlook the Australian culture of violence that is exacerbated by alcohol rather than caused by it. These teenagers were not killed by Smirnoff or Johnny Walker, they were killed by Kieran Loveridge and Shaun McNeil; individuals prone to violence regardless of whether they were intoxicated or not. Bare in mind that Christie is the fifteenth fatality from a "king-hit" punch in six years.
It is difficult to forget McNeil's mother quoted as saying: "he's a boy, they get into fights, but he's never been involved in anything like this." Or Kieran Loveridge remarking offhandedly after watching the news broadcasts of his handiwork: "was that one of my fights? I don't know. It fits my description…"
The great majority of Australians can have a night on the town without even considering an act of violence against another individual. Yet a minority have embraced the culture of violence and been supported by the impunity with which acts of violence that have negligible consequences are often treated by authorities: "boys being boys" or "just a bit of argy bargy". Moreover, individuals are loath to report a punch that didn't really harm them. Of the fights one might witness on a Saturday it is likely that most will go unreported. Indeed, it is entirely conceivable that if Thomas Kelly wasn't seriously injured, Kieran Loveridge may have never been sufficiently punished for the four other assaults he committed that night.
Enforcing lockouts and closing times does nothing to prevent the worst violence committed by aggressive individuals, nor does it necessarily stop them from becoming intoxicated at home before going out. Rather, something must be done to combat the culture of violence and impunity associated with relatively "minor" incidents; there can no longer be any such thing as "just a punch".
The purpose of punching someone is to cause harm. Regardless of the outcome of the punch, be it death or no notable harm, it should be considered a serious offence in itself. The police and public should be encouraged to treat any act of violence as seriously as if the victim had suffered grave injury. To distinguish punishment based on the harm caused by a random punch, as some have suggested, offers no general deterrent effect and fails to account for all the punches that led to the "lucky one" that ended a life. Individuals need to be aware that if they decide to harm someone else, regardless of how much damage they actually do or pain they inflict, they will face serious consequences.
There are some who argue that those who are intoxicated do not necessarily have the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions, however being "drunk" is generally not considered a mitigating circumstance in Australian criminal law and should not be utilised to avoid personal responsibility for violence.
Renaming the "king-hit" as a "coward punch" is an appropriate move, however the semantic distinction without an associated effort at culture change is unlikely to have any major effect. This cultural change cannot only take place in the eyes of the law. For example, on the sporting field too, professional, amateur and schoolboy, it must be shown that punches are not simply part of the game and something that one can get away with.
While the likely knee-jerk political responses to such a tragedy are easy and publicly popular they are largely ineffective. It has been argued that lockouts and enforced closing times simply put fights on the streets where they are largely unreported. Furthermore, it is impossible to put a policeman on every corner in the city, but even if it were it wouldn't necessarily stop the violence. There were 2500 police on the street on New Year's Eve and, according to SMH, 10 policemen witnessed Shaun McNeil assaulting Daniel Christie yet were unable to prevent the violence.
Alcohol will always be a part of the typical Australian Saturday night. Simply blaming alcohol for causing violence eschews personal responsibility and fails to address the culture of violence and impunity that surrounds minor incidents. In order to effectively mitigate violence occurring on Sydney's streets it is necessary to institute cultural change starting with the legal and public perception of "just a punch", combined with alcohol management programs.
The author is a non-drinker.
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