The Mask of Anarchy


'As one reads is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes which the wicked have committed, but by the punishments which the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.'

Oscar Wilde

The mobs have been out again. The target is a strange alien life form called 'paedophiles'; the protest takes the form of laying siege to police stations. The mob insinuates that if a recently released ex-offender is housed in their area, they will run him out of town. He is in the police station for his own protection; the police assume that if the mob got their hands on him, they would do a good deal more than sit down over a cup of tea and give him a bloody good counseling session.

The mob has a point. If I had kids, I wouldn't be jumping for joy if I heard that someone who had just served a long prison sentence for molesting children was about to move into the house next door to me. It seems pretty absurd that the only way in which we can think of to deal with child-molesters is to chuck them in jail, and then chuck them out again until the next time they offend. The question 'But what should we do with them after they've served their sentence' is a difficult one. The government's proposed answer is 'Maintain a register of their whereabouts, and notify members of The Community when one moves into their area', which doesn't seem terribly constructive. The Community's proposed answer is 'Hang around outside police stations holding symbolic nooses and demanding our constitutional right to beat them up or kill them' which seems even less so.

But, in a funny way, the mob scares me more than the person they are mobbing against. I don't, of course, think that standing outside a police station making a lot of noise is a worse crime than molesting children. I don't think that many things are worse than molesting children, although 'killing the whole population of Cambodia' and 'selling torture implements to oppressive regimes' would be on the short-list. But I have always known that there are a small number of monstrously wicked individuals—or at any rate, individuals who, because of moral defects or insanity or original sin or dysfunctional hormones do monstrously wicked things. The existence of such individuals fits into my world view; I wish they didn't exist, but the fact that they do doesn't horrify me. What is scary is to be reminded of what goes on in the minds of majority of law-abiding citizens.

If the mob is representative—if the letters which appear in newspapers and the leader columns in populist tabloids remotely reflect public opinion—then the majority of citizens reject in principle the theory that everyone is equal under the law, and that society can only punish a man after a legal process of trial, evidence, and appeal. On the contrary, they think that the police ought to hand the criminal over to them for summary justice; they think that retribution is valid whatever it's source. The parents of a murder victim, interviewed on Panorama, said that when they heard that the killer of their child had been murdered by a fellow inmate, they 'opened a bottle of champagne' because he had 'got what he deserved.'

They appear to reject the legal distinction between 'murder' and 'manslaughter', since they hold that criminals who have been convicted only of manslaughter ought to be executed. They reject the principle that one has to have been fully responsible for ones actions in order to be punished for them, since they call for the execution of the insane and even of children. They often regard pleas of insanity as simply a means by which bad people can escape from the consequences of their actions. Many of them take the same view of the concept of evidence. When someone is found innocent—that is, when someone is acquitted on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to convict them—they howl that he has 'walked free' or been 'let off'. The implication is that they think that he should have been imprisoned (or killed, or whatever) irrespective of the lack of proof.

They appear to adopt an intrinsic view of evil. They believe that criminals incur punishment, not for the commission of particular crimes, but for a taint in their fundamental nature. You just have to kill evil people; simple as that. There is a columnist who writes for a newspaper sold openly in respectable newsagents who argues whenever a miscarriage of justice comes to light that it does not matter that so-and-so spent eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit because he was a bad person and deserved to be there anyway. It is like a grotesque parody of the most extreme sort of Calvinism: you are predestined to Hell from the moment of your birth; not damned because you are bad, but bad because you are damned.

That the same people who argue for intrinsic inborn evil are also the ones who advocate censorship on the grounds that some literature promotes crime need not detain us. It is clear that the organ of 'evilness' is like a switch: it lies latent through your early childhood, but can be activated by exposure to Lollita or Tellytubbies. More problematic is the fact that many of them call for harsher and harsher punishments and stricter and stricter discipline on the grounds that this will promote morality and restrain bad behavior. But, if people with the 'evil' taint are predestined to do evil, then how can this be?

The mob's ideal society, then, would be one in which armed neighborhood watches broke into the houses of evil people and hanged them in the middle of the night, without the intervention of courts, police forces, laws, or other organs of the wishy-washy liberal intelligentsia. A society which is predominantly made up of such people is a far more terrifying prospect than a society which contains an infinitesimally small number of child molesters and serial killers.

But there is one thing, over and above this, which terrifies me about the mob.

It came to me while watching the TV pictures of the near-riot outside the police station, but has been hovering in the back of my mind while looking at a number of pictures of demonstrations against murderers, child molesters, and other naughty people.

It is this: The mob seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Once you've said it, it becomes compelling. I have tried to back away from it. The skinheads in anoraks, chanting 'Ere we go' as the murderers of James Bulger were taken off to a juvenile prison were clearly more in sorrow than in anger, doing what they felt needed to be done. The women outside Yeovil Police station, carrying a noose, with their children in pushchairs, shaking their fists, would sooner have been home watching telly. The people in the USA who volunteer to pull the switch on condemned men; the weekly application-letters for the post of hangman that the Home Secretary used to get in the 1950s—they were from concerned citizens, wanting to do their bit for society, just as they might volunteer for some distasteful job at the old people's home.

I want to believe it; but I can't get it out of my head.

'What if they are enjoying themselves. What if they like it. What if the paedophile, or the murderer, or the Japanese Emperor simply provides a pretext for them to do something they like doing. What if the point of the criminal justice system is not to provide deterrence, reformation and retribution of abhorrent behavior, but to provide a pretext for hatred and cruelty.'

What if.

We all have it in us—the wish to hate, the desire to hurt, the thrill of anger, the pleasure of having a bloody good row, the exhilaration, the relief of walking out of the office and picking a fight with someone, anyone; the daydreams of telling the boss, the wife, that irritating colleague exactly what we think of them. Fiction, fantasy, ritual, religion—all provide outlets for the feelings. We have sports matches in which we whip ourselves up into a frenzy of hatred against the enemy team—and then shake their hands and go for a beer. We have films in which a clever entertainer pretends to be the most despicable villain imaginable so we can have the pleasure of hating, fearing and despising them and watching them being killed in some ghastly way by Arnie or Sly. War is a terrible thing, but we have always been allowed to unashamedly glory in the killing of our enemies. Cruelty is a terrible thing, but you can always get a crowd together to witness the bloody, ritualised killing of bull or a fox. Murder is wrong, but crowds used to turn out for public executions, and when the Americans finally decide to show an execution (say, of the Oklahoma bomber) on live television, they are guaranteed the biggest ratings since Di's funeral. (You'd turn on, wouldn't you?) None of this would be true if anger, hatred and cruelty were not intrinsically enjoyably emotions. Enjoyable in themselves, irrespective of who or what they happen to be directed towards.

What if?

If that were true....then it would be necessary for us to select people—someone, anyone—who hatred could be legitimately directed at. We'd invent a word for those people. 'Evil' say, although 'witch', 'jew' and 'communist' would work just as well. You could select these people arbitrarily. A funny birthmark was enough to get you labeled as a witch; you didn't actually have to have done anything. The Chairman could wake up one morning and decide that his most loyal subordinate was a traitor to the party. Kissing your child good night or taking snapshots of its first bath can arouse the suspicion that you are a paedophile—although, interestingly, buying a paper which prints pictures of teenage models in their underwear does not. Did our ancestors ever really believe that Mrs Smith from number 14 was in league with Beelzebub because she had a black cat and a missing finger? Of course they didn't. But burning old ladies at the stake was such fun that they went along with it.

What if?

This process of declaring people wolfs-head, scapegoats on whom we can legitimately pour our all our rage, could be very useful to Kings and Prime Ministers.. If I am going to stay in power then sooner or later I am going to want to use force against some of my subjects. And I am going to want the rest of my subjects to question that use of force as little as possible. So I harness their desire, their need, to hate. I make a pact with them. I say 'You may hate all you want, but you must let me select the victims. I will provide you with a steady stream of scapegoats, of human sacrifices, of trench wars, of evil criminals, of witches: you may do with them whatever you like. But you can't do it to anyone else.'

Once I have made this bargain, my staying in power depends on its efficacy. If my subjects ever decided that they didn't want or need victims, I would have no means of retaining power over them. So they must never be allowed to overcome their addiction or suppress their appetite. I will not let them feed their addiction by other means. If they got all the rage they wanted from boxing matches; violent games; bloodthirsty movies; blood sports; then they might spoil their appetites and be unwilling to hate the enemies which I choose for them. So I must censor the theatre as much as possible; encourage moral panics about the effects of TV violence; prohibit boxing and hunting. There must be no outlet for people's anger and hatred other than against those people who I have selected to be 'criminals', 'enemies' and 'evil doers'. And I must never, ever let them question the fact that my chosen victims are, indeed, evil. People who say 'But aren't the enemy soldiers just like us?' must be pilloried as weak, soft, unpatriotic. Books which attempt to show that even the worst criminals are human beings—which explain criminal's wrong-doing in terms of their childhood, in terms of social factors—must be banned, burned or ridiculed.

What if?

Could it be true? Have I sat here and argued myself into thorough-going anarchism? Is the whole edifice of the state and law and order built on nothing more than sadism? But, if we took that edifice away, wouldn't that be the quickest way of handing power directly to the mob? Isn't it precisely the fear of the police, the law, the coercion of the state which prevents the mob from lynching criminals in fact rather than in effigy? Do articles like this—does political radicalism in general—do anything more than indulge my wish to hate by directing it at grinning politicians, and people who read the wrong newspaper?

I don't know. All I know is, when I look at TV pictures of mobs outside police stations, they look to me as if they are enjoying themselves.