Millstones and Lynchmob Mindsets

The current news story concerning the abduction of April Jones from Machynlleth, in Wales is the nightmare of every right-thinking parent, and indeed upsetting to any right-thinking human being whether or not they have children. But the tsunami of emotions around this, and similar stories in the past, unsettles me almost as much as the event itself.
In response to the murder of 8 year old Sarah Payne back in July 2000 her mother pressed for the introduction of "Sarah's Law" (a variation on the controversial "Megan's Laws" in the USA) backed by a name and shame campaign by that late unlamented arbiter of social rectitude "The News of the World", which seems to have contributed to a lynchmob mindset, resulting in innocent people being injured and a paediatrician's home being attacked.
That same lynchmob mentality seems to be swinging into gear again. I've had friends on facebook calling for the man suspected of abducting and perhaps murdering young April, to be tortured until he tells the truth about what has happened. Then yesterday, again on facebook I came across this post which another friend had commented on. It is supposedly addressed to the Prime Minister, David Cameron (I've left the spelling as per the original post - I rarely correct my own spelling, so who am I to point out the errors in others):
Hi David,
Sorry to trouble you, but after the news of that bastard Mark Bridger being charged for the Murder of the near defenceless 5 year old girl April Jones, I just couldn't help myself by writing this post.
It truely saddens me, and as a father of 3 beautiful children, I am certain that I speak on behalf of 99.9% of the population of Britain, when I ask you to consider reinstating Capital Punishment sentances, such as Hanging, and the Electric Chair!
It despises me what that monster has done, and a life sentence in prison is by no means justified for this beast! His death by hanging should be televised live for us all to see!
Better still, make it legal for the parents, close friends and various members of the public to spend a little time behind closed doors with this murdering bastard. It wont bring back little April, but it might just make other potential child abductors and murderers think twice about commiting such crimes!
What unsettled me was that when I looked at this comment 88,392 people had said they liked it (not quite 99.9% of the UK population, but still a fair whack) and there were 10,719 comments... Now I know that the comments area of the internet is the virtual equivalent of a rock under which all sorts of unspeakable things lurk, but a quick dive into this murky pool (to mix my metaphors) revealed some truly toxic opinions. My friend's comment wasn't one of them, indeed he was trying to suggest that while the emotions of the original post were understandable, some of the ideas within it and the subsequent comments were less than helpful. However, I fear that his inbox may well be full to overflowing with subsequent vitriolic spewings. A fair number of those were not only aimed at Mr. Bridger, but also at the parents of young April, asking why she was out so late at night? Again this is not unusual. We've seen it before with Maddie McCann's parents etc. People like being able to blame someone... the parents, the authorities as well as the person who ultimately committed the crime. Name and shame is the name of the game. Find those at fault and make sure they pay...
I don't want to live in a society where children are abducted and killed... but I equally don't want to live in a society where some of those venting their spleen on threads such as the one I saw on facebook that have any role in shaping the legislation that I, and my children, live under. Even if 99.9% of the people agree. Because the majority isn't always right.
But there are those who know that the majority of people DO feel a sense of revulsion in situations such as this... and capitalise on that fact. I have little doubt that, in part, that lay behind the News of the World's name and shame campaign. Recent revelations show that it had little to do with respect for Sarah Payne, indeed at the time Max Clifford, the PR equivalent of a vulture, praised the then editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Wade (the Rebekah Brooks who is currently facing trial next year for charges related to phone hacking) for her "shrewd" editorial judgement from "a circulation and readership point of view".
But it isn't just newspapers... Two books that I've read recently, "Blacklands" by Belinda Bauer and "Worth Dying For" by Lee Child, have child abduction and murder at their core. Child's "Jack Reacher" book is a piece of pulp fiction where the "hero" dispenses his own form of wild-west vigilante "justice" on the perpetrators of this crime, encouraging those related to the victim to help mete out the punishment... I described it as "lynchmob literature", but actually to call it literature at all is to give it a dignity it doesn't deserve. Bauer's book is a more subtle piece, but also implies that "closure" (I hate that term) can only come through violent retribution... Such storylines sell because of the heightened emotions around such crimes - offering a literary thrill-ride approach to our worst fears, whilst dispensing a straightforward solution to something that is clearly a sickness in our society. As such they are every bit as exploitative as those who prey on young children in the first place. The latter do so to satisfy some twisted sexual desire. The former do so to feed their bank balances.
Yet did Jesus not have a similarly ruthless attitude to those who prey on children? He said:
If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Matthew 18:6 (ANIV)
That's fairly radical... and I've used that passage myself in the past, particularly when reflecting on the abuse of children by those ostensibly acting in the name of the church, but look at it again... It isn't simply about the abuse of children, but affecting their belief in Jesus and causing them to sin... To apply this directly to any case of child abuse and murder raises a whole other can of worms about the nature of sin... Children who are abducted and abused are sinned against, not made to sin...
I think that the full rigour of the law should be brought to bear on anyone found guilty of such acts... But the effectiveness of retributive justice, and in particular, capital punishment, in deterring others from such heinous acts is at best unproven. Does it even make the relatives of the victim feel better? I don't know... But I'm not too sure about a society that seeks to make people feel better by satiating bloodlust. 
There are no easy answers for the families of such victims... or society as a whole... and while we must continue to strive to make society a safer place for all those who are vulnerable, including children, as well as seeking to bring comfort and healing to those who are hurting, there is an extent to which we continue to live with the pain of past atrocities and the fear of future ones... But it cannot and must not be a paralysing fear where we look on everyone who takes an interest in children as a potential pervert, or where children cannot play in the street because of stranger danger... especially when most danger to children is within the family home!
As is often the case there are a whole series of stimuli that prompt my posts... in this case it wasn't just reading those two books against the background of April Jones' abduction, but also yet another track on Karine Polwart's new album "Traces". The final, hauntingly beautiful track "Half a Mile" was written in memory of Northumbrian schoolgirl Susan Maxwell, a girl the same age as Polwart , who was abducted and murdered 30 years ago on her first ever solo journey home from the Tennis Club... She was a victim of the same truck driver Robert Black, who was recently convicted of murdering local Northern Irish girl Jennifer Cardy the year before Susan's death.
Black may have been convicted and imprisoned... but even if he had been executed the fears of others, the pain and the questions remain. Karine Polwart, with Susan's family's permission, articulates some of these as she sings:
Did you make it past the oak and the boortree
To where the wheat stalks the copse on the hill?
Did you spy big barn where the road bends round?
And were the finches charming you?
And were you singing?
Were you singing "Poor Old Johnny Ray"?
[A line from that summer's hit "Come on Eileen"]

You were high on being alone
You were high on being old enough to walk home
For the first time
Half a mile to go

How we raked through the hedges and ditches
The blistering hogweed and the ragged bulrushes
But it was no good

And the trucks still roll by 

Karine offers no easy answers to the questions she poses... indeed no answers at all, and, actually, contra the News of the World, facebook posters, Lee Child et al there probably are no satisfactory answers... Not in this fallen world anyway...



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