Can’t we leave Rhys Jones alone?
Who would try to exploit the senseless murder of an 11-year-old to promote their agenda? Well…
The shooting dead of 11-year-old Rhys Jones as he walked home from football practice in Croxteth, Liverpool was a shocking tragedy. It has come as less of a shock, however, to see so many trying to stand on his coffin to make moral and political speeches about the state of the nation. The fact that nobody yet knows who shot the lad or why has left a blank space on which anybody can write their own script. That the killing appears meaningless has been widely taken as a licence to imbue it with whatever meaning you see fit.
As news of the shooting broke, politicians rushed in to issue press statements – and their high-mindedness was matched only by their vacuity. Prime minister Gordon Brown seized the rare opportunity to speak for the nation as he informed us that it was ‘a heinous crime that has shocked the whole of the country’. Those who might have wondered what Brown stands for at least know now that he is very much against 11-year-olds being shot dead in cold blood. Two other government ministers – home secretary Jacqui Smith and crime and youth justice minister Beverley Hughes – also felt the need to issue public statements expressing their deepest sympathy for Rhys’ family and friends. The leaders of the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did the same.
This sort of moral grandstanding by politicians is bad enough. But they could not resist the temptation to make some political capital out of the tragedy. Brown promised ‘tougher enforcement’ of existing gun laws in areas blighted by gang crime, and pledged to ‘crack down’ on the sale of alcohol to under-18s. Since there had been no suggestion that under-age drinking had anything to do with Rhys being shot by a teenage gunman on a bicycle near a pub, this proposal seemed pretty bizarre even by the standards of kneejerk government reactions.
That did not stop Tory leader David Cameron from repeating the call for such a crackdown on sales of booze to teenagers, however – along with a demand for the media, music and video game industries to show ‘true social responsibility’. Cameron sought to hitch public disgust at the killing to his recently launched campaign against the alleged crisis of ‘anarchy in the UK’. He insisted that, ‘Of course all the incidents are separate and horrific, but we do have a situation now where we have had a spate of children killing children and we have got to ask what’s going wrong in the country.’
That same question was quickly being asked across the media, as opportunistic experts and spokespersons from every quarter tried to use the killing to promote their own agendas. It has been a ghoulish spectacle, watching them compete to turn a boy’s body into some sort of grisly mannequin through which to project their own voices.
Their shooting has been scattergun, hitting targets all over the place. Some newspaper features helpfully listed all of those being held to blame, with various authorities and celebrities recruited to name their favoured scapegoat. Many blamed the government, police and courts for not doing enough to deal with Britain’s gun culture/drug culture/gang culture. Another popular response, favoured by everybody from the Bishop of Liverpool to Lorraine Kelly of GMTV, was to blame inner-city parents for failing to bring up their children right. Others pointed the finger at schools for not giving children a proper education. Then there was the list of such usual suspects as the media, rap music and violent video games.
All sides seem to insist that the danger is so great that this could have happened to ‘anybody’s child’, and that unless their particular prescription is followed then, in the words of the Victims of Crime Trust, ‘these senseless child murders will become an unacceptable norm on the streets of Britain’.
What any of this sermonising did to help make sense of a senseless killing is anybody’s guess, but it certainly seemed to give all concerned a self-satisfied sense of righteousness. In one sense, it is true that it could have been anybody’s child; Rhys was an innocent boy who, say police sources, was simply ’in the wrong place at the right time’. But it is also true that nobody’s child is likely to suffer a similar fate – the shooting was so shocking precisely because it is so far from ‘the norm on the streets’. And it seems unlikely that any of the easy ‘solutions’ offered by the commentators could have prevented such a uniquely shocking crime.
Even in times of such high emotion – indeed, especially at such times – it is important to try to keep a sense of perspective. There is little evidence of any deadly ‘gun culture’ sweeping Britain. Gun murders remain relatively rare in this country and there is no clear upward trend.
According to provisional Home Office figures, there were 58 firearms-related homicides in 2006-07, up from 49 in 2005-6. The BBC announced: ‘That is an increase of 18 per cent in just one year.’ The scaremongering wing of the media rarely sees fit to mention that the earlier figure represented the lowest number of gun killings for a decade. In 2004-5 there were 77 firearms-related homicides, in 2002-3 there were 80, and in 2001-2 the total reached 95. In other words, five years ago the number of gun killings in Britain was almost two-thirds higher than in the past year. Funny, I don’t recall seeing that make any headlines this week (see Shooting down the myth of ‘gun culture’, by Brendan O’Neill).
There is a specific issue of drug and gang-related crime in some areas. But even that has become the object of some hysteria since the Croxteth shooting. As Rhys’ devastated yet admirably level-headed mother said, when asked if Rhys was aware of guns and gangs in his area: ‘How would he know about that sort of thing? I was not aware of any guns on the estate. There are gangs of teenagers, but there are gangs of teenagers everywhere.’ Or as a local councillor added: ‘We’ve never seen this kind of thing happen before, we’ve had young kids by the shops and in the pub area causing a noise, but certainly nothing as serious as this.’
Rhys is not the first young victim of violent crime to be used as a symbol of some supposed national malaise, and posthumously recruited as a poster boy for political campaigns. Sixth months ago, after a brief spate of teenage killings in south London, David Cameron claimed the deaths were evidence of a ‘broken society’ and called for laws to ‘compel’ fathers to bring up their children – a meaningless flourish (unless he intended to make divorce illegal again) but a good headline-grabber.
By contrast Tony Blair, whom some of us might recall was still prime minister when those killings occurred in February, called for a ‘careful’ response. ‘This tragedy’, he insisted, ‘is not a metaphor for the state of British society, still less for the state of British youth today’. A good point, well made, some might think. But a slightly too transparent attempt on Blair’s part to say, at the end of his decade in power, ‘Don’t blame me for these killings!’
Blair’s insistence that each crime should be treated in its specific context rather than generalised from might also have been more convincing if his New Labour government had not established a long record of trying to exploit such episodes. Back in 2000, 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was killed in south London. Before anybody really had a clue how he had died or who was responsible, then home secretary Jack Straw – now Brown’s close lieutenant as justice secretary – went to the scene and announced that Damilola’s death was a ‘wake-up’ call to resist the culture of thuggery, bullying and violence, and to create a ‘responsible society’. Then education secretary David Blunkett described the killing as a symptom of the ‘me-first generation’. Almost seven years on, many of those trying to impose their own meaning on Rhys Jones’ murder appear to have been reading from the same old script.
Rhys’ death is not a ‘metaphor for the state of British society’. But the high-profile reactions to the killing do reveal some wider problems. There seems to be an emptiness at the heart of our public and political life that the authorities seek to fill by the emotional manipulation of tragedies (the tenth anniversary of the extraordinary circus that followed the death of Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’, should remind us that this, too, has a pedigree).
Cameron unwittingly gave voice to the problem when he said last week that what was needed after the Croxteth murder was ‘not a new set of words to express national values’ but ‘something more powerful than words’. Which is convenient, since the problem in politics today is that nobody can come up with the words to express anything approximating shared values across society. The only ‘something more powerful’ they are left to appeal to appears to be our basic shared revulsion at something like the murder of an innocent schoolboy. Lowest common moral denominators do not come much lower than that.
The reactions to Rhys’ killing have also confirmed how a fear of young people now seems to have taken hold in society. The authorities no longer seem able to relate to youth except as tabloid cartoon figures – either they are seen as helpless victims of violence and abuse, or as drink- and drug-fuelled anti-social yobs. Indeed, the past week has shown how distant the political and media class are from entire sections of the population – a gap summed up by the embarrassing stories written by nervous journalists who took a taxi to Croxteth to report on the ‘mean streets of Liverpool’ as if they were (very briefly) braving a jungle populated by twenty-first century savages.
‘This should not happen, this should not be going on’, said a tearful Mrs Jones about the killing of ‘my baby’. The same could be said about all the subsequent ghoulish attempts to exploit her family’s tragedy.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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