Monday 26 August 2019

We need to remember that mob justice is no justice at all

Mob rule: News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks argued that if you objected to her paper naming and shaming child molesters, then you were on the side of the molesters
Mob rule: News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks argued that if you objected to her paper naming and shaming child molesters, then you were on the side of the molesters
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Monday, August 28, 2000 is a date which will live in stupidity.

The reason for the significance of that particular date might not be immediately apparent, but there's a good chance you may remember being shocked by a turn of events in Wales during that warm August.

It was a different landscape back then, and the News of the World, wallowing in its pomp before its ignominious demise a few years later, had decided that it was going to name and shame every paedophile they could find.

The move was, as you might expect, rather controversial.

But it did what the News of the World set out to do - it named and shamed some people, sales skyrocketed in response to the moral panic and the paper's marketing team pulled off the great coup of convincing people that if they bought the News of the World, they would also be doing their bit to help children.

It was a genius piece of cynicism, even though it was accused at the time of simply pandering to the lowest common denominator. As editor Rebekah Brooks simpered in her calculating way, if you were one of those people who objected to her paper naming and shaming child molesters, then you were obviously on the side of the child molesters. And that is a side that nobody wants to be on.

It was the perfect bulletproof vest against any accusations of rank cynicism and hypocrisy.

It looked like the paper had gotten away with the stunt until the inevitable happened - a bunch of dummies in the Welsh county of Gwent vandalised a paediatrician's surgery because they confused 'paediatrician' for 'paedophile'.

It was a remarkable example of mob stupidity and when it subsequently emerged that the paper had also included incorrect names and addresses of alleged predators, the campaign was quickly and quietly shelved.

As an indicator of just how dangerously dense crowds of ill-informed people can really be, many of the locals continued to insist that the doctor was 'probably' dodgy and, as one local blithely admitted afterwards, "you can't be too careful these days".

Ah yes, the old "you can't be too careful" defence. Where an individual will usually rely on the "only following orders" argument, mobs tend to rely on the old "you can't be too careful" line.

It's a fiendishly effective argument because by the time you've asserted that you're just as appalled by the sexual abuse of minors as any mob, they will simply reply that they obviously care more.

I've been thinking a lot back to that summer 17 years ago and how absolutely nothing has changed, we simply have better social media tools to help us whip up a posse whenever we want.

The recent case of the RTÉ employee who found himself the victim of a sting operation by a group of self-styled 'paedophile hunters' is merely the most high-profile example of the latest trend for entrapment and members of groups like 'Dark Justice' boast about spending up to 40 hours a week grooming potential targets.

Objections to such an approach should not be mistaken for sympathy for those they catch. But that's why the State and the forces of law and order exist - to stop us acting out of personal outrage and, instead, demanding that justice be seen to be done in a proper and transparent manner.

As the great Andrew Vachss consistently points out, paedophiles are rarely caught the first time they transgress, and he also argues that trying to 'cure' paedophilia is, for a variety of reasons, a hopeless cause.

But that doesn't mean we should meekly accept that these groups are doing the right thing, just because the people they target are doing something unconscionable.

As one of the UK's paedophile hunters, Stephen Dure, admits, he "wants to leave a mark on the world and it is addictive and exhilarating".

Maybe it's a way for some people who feel powerless in their own lives to exert some control. Maybe they're motivated by altruistic reasons, but the fact that they live stream their busts should remind us that these are simply modern vigilantes.

We've already seen one Facebook frenzy in the Irish midlands, when an innocent man was driven from his area because of fake reports that he was a predator.

As much as we all share an utter revulsion with the actions of paedophiles, can anyone honestly say that they are prepared to accept the destruction of innocent lives in the hunt for the guilty?

Are we to simply throw away the entire foundation block of Western society, which is innocent until proven guilty?

We live in a land devoid of nuance. It's as if everyone's mental topography has been reduced down to a level that can't process two ideas at the same time - that it is possible to be enraged by predators while also feeling serious alarm at the prospect of vigilante justice.

After all, every mob in history was convinced it was doing the right thing. Whether it's burning books, burning Jews or streaming an encounter with a suspected abuser, all mobs thought they were the righteous ones.

But as history repeatedly taught us, mob justice is no justice at all, merely the first step on the path to tyranny.

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