Ian O'Doherty: Paedophile hunters say they are trying to do the right thing...but every mob thinks that
Throughout human history, every society has had its own moral panic.
Sometimes that moral panic is based around the perceived ‘other’ in that society’s midst, which, in extreme cases, leads to genocide.
Far more common, however, is a cultural moral panic – from the ‘reds under the bed’ hysteria of America in the 1950s, to the drug-taking, free-lovin’ hippies of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the subsequent spasms of societal outrage which good music like punk and hip hop used to provoke.
Then there are the frenzied outbursts that are caused by technology.
Those of you old enough to remember the VCR will, no doubt, recall a time when the various Mary Whitehouse figures of the day railed against the so-called video nasties.
Invariably, these explosions of fear and hysteria tend to fade with time once it emerges that the things which caused so much consternation aren’t the threat to society that they were once portrayed as.
Certainly, when it comes to the cultural and musical panics, it’s interesting to note that where hip hop was once seen as something that was going to ruin America’s youth, rappers became commonplace in Obama’s White House, while the same video nasties which once had to be surreptitiously rented under the counter of disreputable video stores, now appear on our TV screens without anyone batting an eyelid.
The moral panic which currently faces our society is predatory paedophiles using social media to entrap vulnerable children.
The difference here, of course, is that unlike the non-existent peril posed by watching a fuzzy copy of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’, or listening to an NWA album with a PMRC warning sticker on the cover, predatory paedophiles are real, they are a threat and they do indeed use social media to entrap children.
It would be idiotic to deny it exists, and it would be utterly immoral to do nothing about it.
Which is where the troubling trend of so-called ‘paedophile hunter gangs’ comes into play.
These are groups of online vigilantes, who pose as young girls to entrap potential predators.
In the UK, these groups use self-aggrandising names like ‘Dark Justice’ and ‘Guardians Of The North’, and have become such a nuisance to the authorities that, following the suicide of a man they exposed, local police forces have warned members that they themselves face prosecution if they have breached the law in the course of their ‘hunt’.
The news that in allegedly clear or ‘cut and dry’ cases of child grooming in Ireland trials may collapse because of the antics of self styled ‘paedo-hunters’ should make us all sit up and take note.
In a recent example, a man allegedly tried to groom a 10-year-old girl. When the child’s mother saw the messages, she posted them online.
One Irish group then shared these messages ‘hundreds of thousands of times’ on social media and, despite repeated warnings, every time Facebook removed a post, someone else would simply put it back up again.
Not only were the full messages contained in these posts, but a picture and name and location of the alleged perpetrator accompanied them.
Even though the individual was arrested and there was relative confidence in achieving a conviction, gardaí are now concerned that the Director of Public Prosecution may not proceed with charges.
The defence will argue that their client can’t hope to receive a fair trial when his name, face and alleged crimes have already been so widely disseminated.
To make matters even worse, one member of the group also took it upon themselves to contact the individual in a ‘decoy’ move and pretended to be interested in kidnapping a child. Now they, in turn, face the possibility of criminal charges.
Now, the authorities are concerned that analagous cases could be at risk of not proceeding, given unwarranted interventions from ‘paedo-hunters’.
These self-styled online avengers have received a certain amount of cachet in the last few years, and they operate in the full knowledge that anyone who criticises their methods is branded as somehow ‘soft’ on paedophilia.
It’s a cheap insinuation and one which immediately places critics on the defensive.
After all, if you have to spend the first half of your argument explaining that you are also against child abuse, then you’ve already lost.
This isn’t the first time some self-styled, self-appointed kangaroo court has caused damage in this country.
Two years ago, a man was forced from his home in the midlands when it was wrongly claimed that he was a paedophile. By the time it emerged that this was a case of mistaken identity, the damage was done.
Incredibly, the woman behind the erroneous exposure then went on radio – anonymously, of course – and defended her actions on the grounds that ‘you can’t be too careful’.
The phrase ‘you can’t be too careful’ is where justice goes to die.
It can be used to justify any transgression or mistake, and still places the offender in a position of moral authority.
The unspoken message, as it always is, is that they care more about this issue than everyone else, and if the police aren’t going to do their job, then someone has to do it for them.
Frustration with the forces of law and order is understandable. After all, we’re living through a time of unprecedented tumult, and faith in the institutions of state has never been so low.
But the problem with setting yourself up as judge and jury is that it’s only a question of time before you become the executioner as well.
Inevitably, these paedophile hunters say that they are only trying to do the right thing.
But every mob thinks that it is doing the right thing.
History, however, tends to take a rather different view.
There is only one court in this country, whether we like it or not.
It may be a flawed system, but it’s the only system we have, and frontier justice is not an acceptable alternative.
When these vigilantes, who seem to operate on some weird fantasy level and simply do not understand the law, start to hinder prosecutions, then they too should be seen as a problem, not as a solution.