Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Innocent victims

A dangerous word, "innocent". It can reveal a lot about the underlying psychological motivations of those who use it. Innocent people are blameless, after all, while non-innocent people are guilty. They deserve everything they get.

When the Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women in Yorkshire thirty years ago, the crimes seemed to many in the press and even the police to escalate when he switched his attention from the prostitutes who were his first victims to "innocent" women. One senior officer, Assistant Chief Constable Jim Hobson, appealed to the Ripper on the basis of their shared hatred for sex workers. "The Ripper is now killing innocent girls. This indicates your mental state and that you are in urgent need of medical attention. You have made your point. Now give yourself up before another innocent woman dies."

When the AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, a similar distinction was widely drawn in the media between "innocent" victims - such as haemophiliacs or people who had been infected with HIV via a blood transfusion - and implicitly guilty homosexuals and drug addicts who presumably deserved to die a nasty, lingering death.

Now look at this Mail headline from today: Innocent couple died "after wrong house was fire-bombed in bungled honour killing".

The story concerns a trial of four men from Blackburn for the deaths of a couple killed in their home in a case of mistaken identity. Three were responsible for starting the fire; the fourth, Hisamuddin Ibrahim, allegedly instructed them to carry out the crime - but his target was someone else entirely, a man who had "dishonoured" Ibrahim by sleeping with his sister.

Here's how the report begins (my italics):


An innocent couple died in a house fire at the hands of assailants who got the wrong address in a botched honour killing, a court heard today.

Abdullah Mohammed, 41, and his wife, Aysha Mohammed, 39, were overcome by smoke and fumes after an accelerant was poured through their letterbox and set alight.

Their killers were ordered by another man to avenge his family's honour but instead of firebombing 135 London Road in Blackburn, Lancashire, they started the blaze at 175 London Road, the court heard.


It is, of course, no crime to engage in a consensual sexual relationship, even one of which your brother disapproves. It would have been an equal tragedy, and as serious a crime, if the "right" people had died. Anyone dying in such circumstances is "innocent". To judge by the tone of the Mail's report, however, the only outrage was that the hired arsonists got the wrong house.

At some level, whoever wrote that headline appears to believe that the crime is worse because the "wrong" people were killed. It's a subconscious bias, no doubt, but no less telling for all that, and reflects the Mail's wider "Islam-envy". However much they have to deplore the barbarity involved in "honour killing", after all, many of the factors that lie behind it, such as traditional community standards, the perceived importance of marriage and old-fashioned sexual morality, are four square with core Mail values. Ditto Sharia punishments or the desire to dictate what women ought to wear. Sure, the more radical, easily caricaturable Islamists hate the British way of life and believe the country has descended into a pit of moral degradation and filth. But then so do most columnists on the Mail.