Facebook didn’t kill Lee Rigby. But neither did the security services. Whilst we’re at it, Haringey Council didn’t torture Baby P, the BBC didn’t grope teenagers, and hotpants don’t cause rape. Every time something horrific happens, we allow ourselves to be distracted from those truly responsible by the lure of systemic failure. And then, when a
‘Crucible’-style scapegoat resigns, we think we’ve fixed it.
This week’s Rifkind report suggested that little could have actually prevented the Fusilier’s murder. Yet its claims of social media negligence have spawned more accusations of culpability than the verdict on Rigby’s killers. Is this because Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale are so unremorseful? So patently guilty? Or is it because they’re representative of a way of thinking we can’t understand?
When a man is hacked to death on a London street, or a toddler is smashed against a wall, it’s understandable to want something recognisibly tangible to blame. In the vain hope of preventing a recurrence, we focus on the inadequacies of a culture we comprehend – rather than having to consider the incomprehensible evil which actually took place. But crimes like these can only be blamed on the people who intended them to happen.
Being unable to monitor every word written on your website doesn’t make you responsible for actions alluded to on it. We’re all aware that the internet can be used for harm. The chatrooms and hints of deep web networking in Tuesday’s controversial Channel 4 documentary ‘The Paedophile Next Door’ show this at its most disturbing. But attempting to police and regulate every form of human communication not only stretches our resources to impossible lengths, it provides dangers of its own.
As members of a society, we have tacit obligations to each other – enforcing moral behaviour takes away our personal responsibility to do this for ourselves. In the same way, charity can’t be mandatory, and faith can’t hinge upon something definite.
Incitements to violence shouldn’t be ignored, and cultures breeding complacency need addressing, but failings in these areas can’t be touted as crime’s cause. Yet this kind of tokenism is endemic. It slags off the Prime Minister for refusing to wear a sloganed t- shirt, rather than praising him for combatting FGM, and focuses on engorged demographic groups, rather than the successful policies targeting people who actually suffer.
And this is all because we’ve become atrociously bad at saying that things or people can be bad. We no longer dare to expose anything as inherently wrong. Inciters of terrorism can avoid deportation by owning a dog that they love, ‘militarist groups’ using children as human shields rise above the secular democracies they indiscriminately attack, and Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are lionised for sabotaging national security and jettisoning the lives of foreign informants.
We live in dangerous times. And increasingly, this owes less to the threats we face, than our reactions to them.