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 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.