Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Panic Is the Right Reaction:we Are Afraid of Our Young

Magazine article The Spectator

Moral Panic Is the Right Reaction:we Are Afraid of Our Young

Article excerpt

Some things don't change in Britain: the teddy bears and CCTV pictures, for example. First come the teddy bears. A princess dies in a sordid drunken accident, a child is abducted in Portugal, two girls are brutally murdered in Soham, a child is shot accidentally-on-purpose and you can't open a newspaper without seeing a photograph with a teddy bear in the foreground among the gladioli. The legitimate grief of the people most directly involved is swamped by the maudlin tears of strangers who muscle in on it; and the stuffed toy becomes for us what black-plumed horses were for the Victorians. I look forward to the day when the lions in Trafalgar Square are replaced by teddy bears, as being more consonant with the new, improved British national character.

Then, if the occasion of the outpouring of ersatz emotion -- one might call it a griefoid-reaction -- is a peculiarly nihilistic crime, the announcement soon follows that it took place on camera.

Of course, the pictures aren't much good, they are what is known as 'grainy', that is to say they need forensically dubious computer-enhancement taking days or weeks in order to produce even disputable evidence of identity, but somehow this reassures the public that capture of the culprit, with condign punishment to follow, is at hand.

But the singular failure of CCTV cameras to moderate the behaviour of the British -- unless you take the optimistic view (or is it the pessimistic view? It's so difficult to tell the difference between them nowadays) that it would be even worse without such cameras -- points surely to another cultural trait, namely the ambition of a lot of young Britons to appear on screen while being nothing but themselves, that is to say without any effort. How else but the worship of one's own banality, combined with a propensity to dream of the unlimited powers of consumption, can one interpret the success of programmes such as Big Brother?

The cameras in the street are but a rehearsal for the big time.

Let us examine some of the responses to the murder of Rhys Jones. A family friend aged 17 wrote a letter, mysteriously made public and printed in a newspaper, in which she said, 'You did not deserve any of this, Rhys. You was a lovely boy.' That Rhys did not deserve to be shot was a common theme. 'This tragedy not deserved to such an innocent beautiful boy, ' said one card left at the site of the killing.

Let us leave aside the fact that it would be an uncommonly nasty little boy of 11 who did deserve to be shot, and simply remark that the habit of praising the victims of murder has become general. This in itself is a sign of cultural degeneration, and points to a complete lack of awareness of the necessary impartiality and impersonality of the law, an awareness that even an uneducated person would have shared 50 years ago.

The grossly sentimental extolling of victims has, indeed, become institutionalised, to use a word given wide circulation by a fatuous official enquiry into a notorious murder. Those close to the victim of such a crime are now permitted to make a victim impact statement in court in which, with sobs and tears, they recall the departed's long eyelashes, charming smile, etc. As yet, the judge is not permitted to take any notice of this official invitation to emotional kitsch; for him, the murder of a universally despised misanthropic miser is as heinous as the murder of a saint. The point is that murder is murder, and not a question, as the Peronist put it when asked if he approved of torture, of who is torturing whom.

Of course, a virtuous people would reject this cynical and demagogic sop with contumely, that is to say with a dignified silence. If they said anything at all, it would be 'Enforce the laws properly, seriously, and do not condescend to us as if we were patients in need of psychotherapy.' But a teddy-bear nation is not likely to miss an opportunity to be emotional in public.

It is hardly surprising that football should play so large a part in the debased soft-toyCCTV culture upon which the response to the murder cast a narrow but powerful beam, with its hideous pendulum swing between sentimentality and authoritarianism passing through deep criminality. …

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