Are all murders equal?
Recently a serving soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in Woolwich. The general public, willingly or not, became voyeurs, witness to the murder in a way still unfamiliar even in the world of camera phones and 24 hour news. With dramatic footage available, the media coverage was extensive. In particular, there was a strong focus on the grief of the family and the contribution he had made to the armed forces. Watching this story unfold I had the feeling that something very particular was happening in the way we were asked to view this murder. It’s something that happens from time to time with high-profile crimes. Something about Lee Rigby had made us take this one personally.
There has been considerable focus on the fact that Lee Rigby was a ‘war hero’ and a ‘family man’. I can’t help but wonder why it was inherently worse in the eyes of the nation that he was a soldier rather than a say, plasterer or a cleaner or someone who was unemployed? Would he have seemed a more palatable choice of victim if he had been single? What about if he was involved in crime or violence? By this I mean the kind of violence not sanctioned by governments rather than the kind that gets you on the wrong side of the law. Having spent a fair time working in the criminal justice system I have been appalled by the number of horrific murders that are committed against young men and women within the context of ‘gang warfare’. These victims attract very little media coverage. It is as though the ‘gang’ label acts as a shield against public sympathy while the label of ‘soldier’ or ‘police officer’ ensures entry into the public consciousness. This is not purely a media issue. Recently, speaking to the Police Federation, Theresa May announced plans to alter legislation so that ‘life means life’ for those convicted of murdering a police officer. This implies justice means different things to us depending on the professional status of the victim. I can’t quite reconcile this with my understanding of the United Kingdom as a country in which all subjects are equal. I value the lives of the police highly but no more highly than I value the life of anyone else.
The inconsistency in the way we treat deaths implies that the general public, and by that I mean people who do not know people in gangs, cannot assimilate the frightening, chaotic and damaged side of Britain that gang culture represents. It is easier for us to ignore the horrifying things that happen every week. This way of thinking is encapsulated in the statements of our politicians. For example, David Cameron frequently alludes to us being ‘broken’ as a nation, thus enabling us to conceptualise an underclass as a broken limb, separate from the healthy whole. It’s logical then that murders in the broken part of town are less important than those happening in view of the middle class. It’s simple in-group, out-group psychology, as Tajfel and Turner’s classic 1986 paper has described.
This sense of a part of society that is a stranger to the rest unfortunately seems reinforced by the media coverage. That some deaths are deemed worthy of sympathy and some are ignored effectively removes our choice. How can we decide what we think about these things when they are not being reported? If a young man in a gang is killed who tells us about who he was, what his family felt or what he might have become? There are some dedicated charities out there, such as the St. Giles Trust, that are flying the flag for these victims by helping those involved in gangs to lead productive lives. Indeed, there are also some government initiatives aimed at tackling this problem. However, it seems unfair for these organisations to take the intellectual as well as the practical burden while the majority of us never give the subject a second thought.
The murder of Lee Rigby is a tragedy but there are others that deserve our grief too. For reasons of invisibility, perceived difference or simply not wanting to know they don’t get it. Are we able to find some room for them in our list of concerns?