Saturday's Mail was incandescent with rage. "Final Insult", screamed the headline, pointing to the story that the mother of Baby Peter might, on release, be given a new identity, at the cost of "millions of pounds of taxpayers' money". Said the report:
Amid the widespread public revulsion at the case, lawyers will use human rights legislation to claim that the 27-year-old's life is at risk.
They are believed to be already drawing up a list of demands to ensure that she receives permanent 'protection' from the public.
It would involve a new home, name and round-the-clock police protection for the woman.
In addition, it is likely that her legal team will request a lifelong court order - banning anyone from identifying her or her whereabouts.
Two of the three adults implicated in the death - Peter's mother and her boyfriend - are supposed to be anonymous anyway, although this would seem to be a temporary consequence of an ongoing court-case. (I see no need to join in the injunction-baiting game of "name and shame". I shall call them, for simplicity's sake, Man B and Woman C.) But of course their names - and photographs - have been freely circulating on Facebook groups, messageboards and blogs for well over a week now, usually accompanied by strongly-worded desires for said individuals to burn in hell and suggestions as to how that final journey might be facilitated. There is, then, a strong prima facie case that the three might indeed be in danger were they to be released, even many years hence, without arrangements being made for their safety. This being the case, it is the obvious duty of the state to provide for their long-term security. That is what it is there for.
We live, or are supposed to, under the law. Parliament lays down maximum and sometimes minimum penalties for crimes, which are then imposed by judges acting on behalf of society. These do not include capital punishment - still less, capital punishment exacted by self-appointed and self-righteous thugs whipped into a frenzy of hatred by the commercial imperatives of tabloid newspapers. The law exists, among other things, to protect society from criminals - and in a democracy there is a legitimate place for debate about the form that protection shall take. But in a culture that has any pretensions to being civilised the law also exists to protect criminals from society.
The law is not, and never has been, an instrument of private vengeance; in fact, it is the opposite. Primitive or decayed societies are governed not by criminal law but by blood-feuds and vendettas, with the resulting crude cycles of retribution. In an advanced society, by contrast, the state finds and punishes offenders on behalf of the community, and it is by limiting punishment within civilised bounds that it helps to preserve the social fabric. When that social fabric breaks down - when it is no longer the law that fulfils the retributive function of justice - then the space vacated is often filled by gangsterism, lynchings, mob rule and other manifestations of anarchy. It happened in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when shootings and kneecappings were often what passed for justice within the segregated communities. It happens still in no-go areas in inner cities. It is always and everwhere a sign of failure.
The Biblical principle of lex talionis - "an eye for an eye" - is often seen as embodying a primitive form of retaliation. Originally, though,it implied a restriction on disproportionate vengefulness. Since human society began there has been a tension between the instinctive desire for excessive punishment and the greater good of punitive restraint. It is a mark of civilisation that punishment should not always fit the crime - if only because some crimes would seem to require punishment so extreme - if it "fit" - that society as a whole would be barbarised by their implementation.
A culture that exhibits excessive retribution is one that has not achieved, or has lost, a sense of evolved morality. We rightly hold up Saudi Arabia, with its floggings and amputations, as an example of what happens when law becomes ossified into obedience to an outmoded text. A recent, horrifying case was reported from Somalia in which a 13 year old girl, accused of "immorality" (it seems she had been raped, but it scarcely matters) was stoned to death by a bunch of crazed Islamic militants convinced that they were upholding divine justice. A thousand people stood by and watched. Is there really so much difference between her murderers and the Facebook vigilantes getting off on dreaming up novel ways to torture Woman C? The self-righteousness is the same, the lynch-mob mentality is the same, the ignorance of the actual facts is the same.
One of the first stories in the Bible concerns the rights of a murderer. After Cain murdered his brother Abel, the tale goes, he was exiled to the land of Nod; but along with exile came protection. Although with Abel dead there was presumably no-one else to worry about (besides Adam and Eve, that is) Genesis records that Cain was anxious even then about people taking the law into their own hands:
And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; ...and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth; and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me.
To which the Lord (who was no doubt familiar with the intricacies of the Human Rights Act) had the following reassurance to offer:
And the Lord said to him, Therefore whoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
Later on in the Old Testament, of course, God has no problem with ordaining all sorts of punishments which we might today find excessive, such as the stoning to death of disobedient children, the killing of persons collecting sticks on the sabbath or of animals who have had the misfortune to have been buggered. But the original point still stands: when God says "Vengeance is mine" (Deuteronomy 32:35) he is claiming a monopoly of violence; in a theocratic polity such as ancient Israel, this is equivalent to an insistence on due process of law.
Nor was Yahweh alone in his desire to override the ancient rights of vengeance in the greater interest of community cohesion. In Aeschylus' Eumenides there is a dialogue between the goddess Athena and the Furies, who have been pursuing and tormenting the matricide Orestes as was their immemorial wont. These ancient spirits present the classic argument of vigilantes that they are the custodians of natural law. When called upon to give evidence in court, they protest that they are not troubled by legal niceties, since their morality is older than any legal system. "You wish to be considered righteous, but not to act with justice," retorts Athena. But for the Furies, as for the Facebook vigilantes, the law is inadequate:
If this legal action triumphs,
if now this matricide prevails,
then newly set divine decrees
will overthrow all order.
Mortals will at once believe
that everything's permitted.
From now on parents can expect
repeated blows of suffering
inflicted by their children—
now and in time yet to come.
It reads almost like a Daily Mail editorial.
There are, of course, many people who knew baby Peter and whose emotion is real and raw: the Sun, contradicting earlier claims, reported on Saturday that his funeral was well-attended. But most of those on Facebook working themselves into paroxysms of rage over what they have read are expressing an essentially fake emotion. Few, of course, would present any real danger to Woman C on her release: it is enough for their sense of self-righteousness and sentimentality to fantasise online about torturing her to death. Yet we have had instances before in recent history of anti-paedophile campaigns where a mob rises to a pitch of hysteria on the rumour that a child abuser has moved into an area. Even if it turns out to have been a paediatrician. There have been deaths - evants often inaccurately described as the perpetrator "taking the law into their own hands". It is not the law, but lawlessness, that vigilantes take into their own hands. Once upon a time, it would have been "witches".
The Mail report mentions that Maxine Carr, whose former boyfriend Ian Huntley murdered two little girls in 2002, has had to be moved at least 11 times since her release from prison. She played no part in the murders, which occured while she was 100 miles away, and it seems not unlikely that her abusive lover coerced her into lying on his behalf. Such subtleties were however lost on newspapers such as the Sun, which cynically stoked up a hate campaign against her and then had the temerity to complain about the cost of her protection.
The popular press, with its sensationalising and sentimentalising of every distressing case, bears the heaviest responsibility for this ugly and atavistic culture of vigilantism. Its coverage of Baby Peter has been virtually pornographic in its lingering upon every horrific detail of the child's suffering. In portraying the adults involved as simplistic avatars of evil they have done little to explain, or give any sense of, what might actually have occured. I have no desire to excuse or minimise the enormity of what happened; but then I simply don't know what happened. Neither did the jury, who failed to convict anyone of murder. The most detailed reports - found, it need hardly be said, in the News of the World - rely on the testimony of a fifteen year-old girl who was the live-in girlfriend of one of the accused, Owen. Her testimony places the blame squarely on Man B. (Today, "Mary chillingly reveals how she SHUDDERED as Baby P was taught to perform Nazi salutes by his tattooed Hitler-loving skinhead stepfather.") Yet Man B was not found guilty of murder.
Be that as it may, the law, however humanly flawed and inadequate, must be allowed to take its course. The alternative is the anarchy of mob-rule - something which much of the coverage seems designed to elicit - if only to provide another story. Tabloid indulgence in the mentality of the lynch mob fits into a pattern of populist anti-law journalism that goes back at least two decades. The judges, according to this analysis, are always "liberal", sentences invariably too soft, human rights are for offenders and come at the expense of victims and ordinary taxpayers, politicians aren't doing enough, prison is cushy and lawyers are overpaid.
In recent years - and especially since the rise of New Labour - this anti-justice campaign has been joined and exploited by politicians. There has been a continuous rhetoric of crackdowns, of "naming and shaming" (amid stiff competition, perhaps New Labour's favourite soundbite) of "re-balancing" and "getting tough", a constant invocation of victims as arbiters or touchstones of morality. Some of the most unattractive features of American criminal process have been copied. The result has been, among other things, the largest prison population in Europe (yet not the lowest crime-rate) accompanied by an increased public awareness of (and therefore fear of) the extremes of violent criminality. Media-obsessed politicians have played on fears of youth-disorder to turn adults against children and pathologise perfectly normal (if sometimes inconvenient) aspects of growing up. They have played shamelessly to the most base and unreflective elements of society - elements which, in their arrogant and isolated liberal redoubts, they presumably regard as typical of "ordinary people".
Early on in Labour's term of office the then Home Secretary Jack Straw led the condemnation of an author who had written a book about Mary Bell who, as a child (but in a much less hysterical climate) had killed a baby and spent her adolescence in correctional institutions. The notion that Mary Bell - a troubled, abused child herself when she committed her juvenile crime - might have an interesting and relevant story to tell about the roots of evil was lost on press and politicians alike, who acted as though there were actual virtue in the perpetuation of ignorance. This disgraceful episode has set the pattern for more than a decade of competition between the Right-wing press and a Left-wing government as to who can most successfully undermine the foundations of a civilised society. So far, I'd say New Labour are just ahead. They, after all, have the power.
How do they justify it? Perhaps along the lines suggested in this passage by Aeschylus, to whom I shall leave the last word:
But these Furies also have their function.
That's something we just cannot set aside.
So if they fail to triumph in this case,
they'll spread their poisonous resentment—
it will seep underground, infecting us,
bring perpetual disease upon our land,
something we can't bear. So stands the case.