The men who killed Stephen Lawrence are not evil. Their acts are and were. The murder was an terrible act, covering it up was too, as was getting away with it for so long – and all the people who aided and abetted that getting away with it also committed vile acts. They are not evil people. I can’t remember hearing the words ‘scum’, ‘evil’, ‘wicked’ quite so often since the killers of Jamie Bulger were sentenced. And all those words disturb me.
When we call someone ‘evil’ we – in the traditional Christian* sense (and that’s largely what the English language, certainly that of the evil-labelling tabloids, is predicated on now) – absolve them from the crime. They’re evil so they can’t help it; they’re scum, so what do you expect; they’re wicked and wicked is as wicked does. We attribute them to the ‘devil’ and devilishness and in doing so we make their acts not of them but of ‘evil’ as a thing apart. And more, we also ignore the responsibility WE as a society should be taking.
The five young men who killed Stephen Lawrence (including the two who have been convicted) did not act in isolation. They were not born violent, born wicked – no baby is ever born anything but hopeful. What happened to them to turn them into the ‘monsters’ of tabloid frenzy is that they were brought up to their racist beliefs, brought up to become killers at 16 and 17.
I am not saying ANY of this is an excuse, I am saying there are reasons.
Reasons people are violent, reasons people form gangs, reasons young men – and so very much of the time it is young men – swagger and believe themselves to shine when they have guns or knives in their hands. And if we ignore the reasons, if we – as a society – simply cheer because the ‘scum’ are now locked away, then we set ourselves up for a repeat. Because we’re making it all about ‘them’ and none of it about ‘us’.
The violence on an Eltham street 19 years ago did not come out of nothing. The criminality (and criminal ineptitude) that allowed Stephen Lawrence’s killers to get away with his murder for so long did not come out of nothing. The murder of Anuj Bidve in Salford on Boxing Day did not come out of nothing. These things are linked and they are linked to racism, which has always been linked to violence. They are linked to the litany of crime and violence in Gary Dobson’s family, listed in Sandra Saville’s Guardian piece yesterday.
No, I don’t know what the answer is (though I’m guessing education might help). I am not a criminologist, a sociologist, a politician. I am a buddhist. I believe in the interconnectedness of all things. I think it’s fairly clear that a nation (Britain) which benefited hugely from the slave trade (the rich far more than the poor, the upper class more than the working class – there’s always still class of course), which has a history of colonising lands and people they saw as lesser (because they weren’t white) and which drew a great deal of its wealth and power from those colonies, was more than likely to turn into a land of institutionalised racism. That it would take more than universal suffrage to overturn that racism. Yes, I know there are plenty of other colonising nations who did more, and worse, for longer. But I live here, and Stephen Lawrence lived here, and the men who killed him live here. I know Eltham, my sister lives there, my mother was moved there during the WW2 after her home in Kennington was bombed out three times. In the 50s my family lived in a couple of rooms in a shared house in Footscray Road. (And btw, I also despise the thinly-veiled distaste for white working class I’m seeing from many commentators today.)
In thinking about yesterday’s welcome news I keep coming back to the fact that simply writing these people off as ‘evil’, as not connected to the rest of us, does NOTHING to change what happened. Worse, does nothing to stop it happening again.
Santayana’s quote : ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ is certainly a cliché, and that’s because it’s true.
Here’s some past :
Thanks to Campbell Ex for posting this image on facebook yesterday.
Here’s some more info, with further links.
And still more, with ghastly statistics.
Here’s some past and present :
Dean Atta’s powerful I Am Nobody’s Nigger
These things are all connected. When we call people ‘evil’ we make them separate from us, making it less likely we will do anything to encourage change.
And there is another connection we can learn from – Doreen Lawrence’s strength, perseverance, anger, and dignity. As she said yesterday, there is no cause for jubilation until all of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers are convicted. Until then, acknowledging that we are ALL part of this, that there is no them and us, might help us to consider others ‘evil’ less – thereby making it nothing to do with us – and do more ourselves.
*I originally wrote Judeo-Christian, and have amended thanks to Naomi Alderman‘s timely intervention in pointing out there is no devil in Judaism.
I couldn’t agree more! If society doesn’t recognise the creation of ‘badness’ within its citizens – and therefore within itself; if society merely tries to cut out that ‘badness’ like a tumour that has no place there by branding the perpetrators evil and ‘other’ – then that society will become sicker and sicker. Because the problem is not a tumour that can be excised without even leaving a scar. The problem is a sickness that isolates, teaches us to hate, to hurt, to harm others. As I tried to show in a film that I made years ago about the psychology of serial killers and the devastating impact that their acts have on so many more than their victims, evil is not born. Evil is created. And we need to stop allowing that to happen. Through education. through enfranchisement. Through involvement and investment in individuals. Through teaching all of our citizens that they are valued and appreciated. And through teaching our youth to care for and to respect each other. Sorry if this sounds a little like a sermon. It’s something that I feel so strongly about.
I totally agree we all you have said. I was in greenwich hospital awaiting the birth of my daughter when the shocking events happened in Eltham. She is now a young art student the age Stephen was when he was brutally killed. It is about valuing our youth and as a parent listening to them. I am a lone parent working full time ( since my daughter was born!) but despite being tired and busy i have always found time to listen to her. I have friends who have never spoken to their teenagers and do not even know what they are doing etc. The media also plays a big part in gang culture. Young children can go online , they can play violent computer games – where hatred and killing is almost celebrated. ( god, im sounding like my mother! ). As a mother i admire Doreen Lawrence’s dignity.
Brilliant blog and social statement. You highlight all the core values that are missing from society today; love, respect, understanding, responsibility all underlined and achieved by an open, rounded education.
Too often we sensationalise crimes to make the criminal so abhorent to us that we can feel safe in the fact that we a different to them. What we always miss is that by sweeping away the problem is doesn’t actually go away. It merely continues to grow in the shadows and emerges time after time to shock, horrify and disgust us with its ‘evil’ and ‘menance’.
The problem isn’t ‘out there’, yet the solution is found within; strength, courage, respect and love should come from us all and in doing so create a more responsible society.
Thank you all. Yes.
Ironically if these two men had confessed at the time and done their time as young men they might have been changed by that experience and moved forward. Injustice traps everybody in its claws. Teenagers often get caught up in and trapped by events around them. Fear, anger, ignorance and failure of the surrounding society leave these lads with nowhere to go. You cannot legislate against ignorance, racism, sexism but you can make it clear that such things and associated crime will not be condoned or overlooked. My son is 19 and if he were murdered I hope I would have Doreen Lawrence’s courage and tenacity in pursuit of justice. However I also greatly fear the rush to judgement and the intemperate language used to describe the defence lawyers as scumbags etc. That suggests the law should prejudge a case and a system that allows an accusation to amount to guilt would take us back to witch hunts and inquisitions and ultimately would be no better than the murderers themselves. I hope for all our sakes the other men involved in this murder are eventually tried and convicted. The most telling observation on the Panorama programme was when one of the commentators said that ‘The Lawrence’s grief and determination made everybody realise that black families feel and are just the same as white families.’
We need to talk more about solutions. This is not about race or Eltham, or education (they all went to school like everyone else, and people murder thier own race as well as other races!). We can’t tackle it that way. The problem seems to me to begin at the earliest stages of life.
I believe it’s now accepted that the most damage occurs to children, and their future behaviour patterns get very largely determined, in their first two years of life, when they should be learning to be social beings through attachment. So far as I know, happy well-adjusted toddlers do not often grow up to abuse or murder their fellows, and cope much better with disruption in their lives that may happen later on (eg parents splitting, or whatever).
So society should work much harder to identify those at risk of becoming anti-social, or criminal, or mentally ill). This has to start at around the first ante-natal class, so the neediest parents get real help in parenting, including financial support if need be so that one parent is with the child until school age. And monitoring then all down the line to adulthood. These boys will have been showing every sign of going off the rails long before 16. Prevention is better than cure, and this has to mean early intervention and help. Waiting until there is a life-crisis of some kind is always too late.
Yes. All of that.
Absolutely agree. I was reading The Independent a few days back and there was an article by Paul McKenzie that said something that struck me…
“Times have changed; the racism faced by my parents and their generation has gone, in its place is a “fog of racism”.”
It’s the intangible racism that will only change as attitudes and education improve through the generations. We’re in for a long battle I fear.
Yes. Long battle, but with huge enthusiasm for the journey. xx