Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Madness Of The Mob

I went out at lunchtime to pick up some reading for my annual holiday next week. I generally travel extremely light but at least half my luggage is taken up by having to have something to read. Ironically amongst the second hand books I picked up in the Charing Cross Road was a £3 copy of Charles Mackay’s ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ – a nineteenth century curio of essays about various outbreaks of mass hysteria, including the Crusades, With-hunts and the South Sea Bubble.

Then I got back to work and saw the online bile unleashed at the news that the abusers in the Baby P case – Tracy Connelly and Stephen Barker – had been named.

It is quite likely that at some point in their incarceration they will be attacked as Ian Huntley was by some fellow prisoner - and if this is the case I personally wouldn’t blame whoever does it. But I see no contradiction in having this natural emotional response on the one hand and on the other expecting a more dispassionate and reasoned official attitude from the state and the legal system.

So I am profoundly depressed at the generally fuck-witted reactions to the court order that suppressed the release of the abusers names. Apparently 68,000 digital-vigilantes have signed up to a Facebook page that not only called for the abusers to be named but also for them to be tortured and then hanged.

It’s a cornerstone of our Anglo-Saxon legal system that the identities of the accuser, the accused and the convicted are in the public domain – unless there is good reason why this should be otherwise. Such as in rape cases. Or where witnesses may be intimidated. Or where there’s another trial pending that could be prejudiced and invalidated. Or where the welfare of other innocent parties, such as children could be compromised.

In fact it was precisaly because of these last two very credible reasons that the court order to suppress the identities was issued in the first place. These criteria no longer apply – the other trial has now taken place and new foster homes have been found for Baby P’s siblings. So the order has been lifted - and rightly so, but not because a howling mob whipped themselves up into a cathartic frenzy of public self-righteousness.

Some time in the future there will be a discussion as to whether a ‘Mary Bell solution’ should be applied if and when the abusers are deemed fit for release. Unsurprisingly, not knowing enough about the case, I don’t have an answer to that one. But reading about the sober way in which that case was handled back in the 60's I can only depressingly observe that as a society our propensity for ignorance and hysteria seems to be increasing.

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