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Thursday, January 17, 2008 

The political tyranny of grief.

The tyranny of the tearful, grieving left behind seems to be an ever growing constant on both our TV screens and newspapers. The wife of the fallen soldier demands that the MoD and government do more to stop what happened to their partner happening again, even if it was an understandable accident; the parents of the missing child travel the globe warning of the dangers of strangers, even when they themselves have been by no means cleared of personal involvement; the parent of the murdered school-teacher urges the government to ban "extreme pornography"; and now we have the widow of the brave have-a-go hero setting out a list of everything that she thinks is wrong with society, and everyone is expected to ably nod along, wring their hands, comment that it really is appalling, or demand instant ever more draconian crackdowns, usually for their own short-term political gain.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not impugning on the right of those dealt the harshest blow that life can throw at them from pouring out their hearts at the injustice of it all; in fact, I'd encourage it. Better to let it out than to bottle it up. You can't fail to be disgusted at Garry Newlove's death, a man who had survived cancer being taken from his family at the feet of the local hoodlums, who deserve everything that they have coming to them, hopefully a sentence that will mean they'll at least be middle-aged before they're released from prison. His wife's eloquent statement, even if I disagree with large parts of it, took courage to both write and read out in front of the country's media.

The best policies on crime and punishment, or indeed on everything are however reached in the cold light of day, not motivated by vengeance or to buy off campaigning newspapers or individuals. The very last thing that should be indulged is knee-jerk reactions that aim towards ever harsher penalties, but rather focus on what works; outrage and apoplexy, along with the momentum that a tragedy provides a person with, have worked to huge disadvantage in the past. You only have to examine the dangerous dogs legislation or the video nasties farce to see what moral panics bring about.

Such rationality however can never stand up to emotion. The Sun's headline to one of its reports is "Get this evil off our streets". Its leader, which I'll return to later, is at least not as demanding of change as it was in the aftermath of the murder of Rhys Jones last summer. Easy answers, such as David Davis's statement today for zero tolerance, which would not have stopped the murder of Newlove even if it had of been in operation, typically miss the point and would only further stigmatise those who get in trouble once and where the shock of being caught is enough to stop from them committing any further crimes. The Tories' complete lack of any real alternative, only claiming that there is a broken society which Thatcherism and its continuation under Blair have done the most to create, and their promotion of bribes through tax cuts which would only help already married middle-class couples show the continuing failure for the party to come to terms with modern Britain. How school discipline could possibly be blamed when all three of those convicted had already left is also a moot point.

Helen Newlove's analysis and diagnosis also shouldn't be above criticism. She says that "[youths] should not be allowed to congregate on street corners", but the only solution she offers is the army or boot camp. One would think the very last thing we wanted to do with bored violent young people is introduce them to an organisation where they're trained to be even more violent, but such logic seems to go out the window in such circumstances. The solution appears to be for the young to be seen and not heard, or out of sight and out of mind. As long as they're off the streets and not scaring the adults, who cares? She talks about the government needing to put "into place an effective deterrent", but just what sort of punishment will make a young person who has spent the whole day drinking think twice before attacking a man who's challenged his authority? There simply isn't one. What can the government do when someone over the legal drinking age is only exercising his right to purchase alcohol? It's their responsibility, not the person who sells it to them.

This isn't defeatist, but does anyone really have an answer to how we can prevent the above without intervening in society in such ways that are neither necessary or likely to even have that much of an effect? Some of the suggestions are the equivalent of stating that we either need a policeman on every corner or a CCTV camera equivalent that recognises offenders and is ready to bark out orders; how else are we supposed to keep tabs on every single person that's out on bail that just might go on to kick someone to death? How are we supposed to change a drinking culture of getting smashed with all the side-effects that entails when that's exactly what the structure of the working week and phony individualism encourages? Why should we surprised that the young feel embittered and disenfranchised when the illusion of meritocracy which New Labour bases itself on is so exposed in the schools they often leave with such low aspirations?

In fact, this whole case leaves the typical blanket recommendations floundering. One of those convicted, Stephen Sorton, had nine GCSEs and was at college studying mechanics. It defies both casual prejudices and the typical assumptions, which is precisely why it's completely wrong to turn to them out of either type or comfort. Even so, it's still apparent that the young need somewhere to go more than ever, but at the same time also want to be left alone. Youth clubs and organisations are one thing, but they've never going to stop them from congregating and potentially intimidating others even if they don't mean any harm. Labour's anti-social behaviour legislation has given the police just the powers to move them on even if they're not doing anything wrong, just the sort of thing that makes teenagers respect their elders. Again, when cases such as these emerge and get blanket coverage, all of those who think they're in a similar boat feel threatened, and the constant scaremongering about "yobs" or "hoodies" only encourages fear and mutual mistrust.

Also typically missing the point is to blame those who are only attempting to do their jobs, as the Sun leader does:

Garry, a devoted husband and father, had repeatedly called on police to act against local vandals and hooligans.

They failed to do their job.

I'd say that they did everything they could: you can't do much more than arrest one of them and charge them with assault, and confiscating their alcohol. Unless they're in a special "no-drinking zone" and aren't disorderly, what else are they supposed to do?

So did the judge who set free killer cop Gary Weddell.

Having hanged his wife, Weddell last week blasted her mother and himself to death.

Surely just as much blame has to lie with his brother, who put up £200,000 bail and then failed to keep the tabs on him that he promised he would. That Weddell was a police officer and had a motive for murdering his wife (who had been having an affair and told him she wanted a divorce) and therefore didn't appear to be a threat to anyone else must also be considered.

A common theme can be found in all three cases — a reluctance to put dangerous people behind bars.

Prisons and police cells are so full of violent criminals that known villains are allowed bail.

And innocent members of the public are paying for that with their lives.

There lies the inherent contradiction - the prisons aren't full of violent criminals, they're full of the mentally ill and those who shouldn't be there, as well as the violent. The Sun's constant hardline is partially responsible for just that, and yet it now in effect demands all those charged with assault are kept in custody when such a policy would be complete lunacy and cost an extortionate amount for such a small possible benefit. Besides, those charged with assault have never been kept in custody regardless of the prison spaces available; it's just the Scum as usual conflating something with its own prejudices.

Put simply, we are never going to prevent every such tragic murder. There always have and always will be hotheaded young out of their heads and suitably inclined to beat up an easy target. Without taking a step back when such strong emotions and feelings inevitably manifest themselves in the aftermath, we'll be forever putting right the mistakes from the last knee-jerk. Reacting to each one as if it must be the latest to change us irrevocably is not just daft, it's dangerous.

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Good to see this sort of thing get said. I always find it insulting that some types of widows get to dictate "the right way" for the country while others never get their public voice despite suffering just the same loss.

Couldn't agree more. Caught a tiny amout of Question Time last night and there were exactly the sort of demands you outline being made by outraged members of the public with regard to the Newlove case. I actually found myself agreeing with Jacqui Smith as she pleaded with the audience to remember that the vast majority of young people are not feral, drunken, happy-slapping monsters and we don't need to lock them all away.
I've been finding the coverage of the Gary Weddell case particularly bizarre. He is exactly the sort of defendant that I imagine would routinely get bail; as you say, he was a copper which would usually imply good character, his brother put up a stack as surety, and the murder was 'domestic' in nature. But the news would have us believe that he was obviously a drooling lunatic and the judge that bailed him was, at best, incompetent in some way.
And I'm not even sure what the news is actually arguing for in all of this, other than for the govt to 'do something'. Are we to expect bail to be abolished completely? Are we that far down the road of guilty until proved otherwise?

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