Sophie Lancaster was by all accounts a sensitive, caring and kind 20-year old girl. The fact that she was so obviously a harmless, open-hearted person puts into perspective even more starkly the question “why would a bunch of teenage lads – who had never laid eyes on her 5 minutes before – think it was either fun, cool, hard or amusing to set upon her until they had taken her life?”

Sophie LancasterAs Sophie’s mum said today, “We were proud to know our daughter. She was funny, kind, loving and brave. She was a beautiful girl with a social conscience and values which made her a joy to know. Not being able to see her blossom into her full potential or even to see her smile again is a tragedy beyond words”.

Sophie Lancaster, 20, was kicked and stamped to death as she begged a group of teenage boys to stop beating her boyfriend in a park in Bacup, here in Lancashire, last August. When Sophie cradled her boyfriend in her arms and pleaded for them to stop, one of them delivered a flying kick to her head and another volley-kicked her in the face “like a ball in flight” said the judge. A rain of kicks then ensued. A 15-year-old witness told police: “They were running over and just kicking her in the head and jumping up and down on her head.”

Today, that group were sentenced, the two that kicked Sophie have received life imprisonment. Unfortunately in my mind for the profile of this case, all over the news today is a more bizarre story: the case of an Austrian pervert who kept his daughter locked up in a cellar for 20 years… But in fact, Sophie Lancaster’s case, happening right in Lancashire, affects me more deeply, and I’m much more interested in its implications for British society. I can more easily categorise and deal with isolated and inexplicable perversion: the Austrian outrage is an distinct exception; what is more troubling about Sophie’s case is that it has happened before in Britain, many times, and will happen again. What I find harder to understand – and even harder to accept – is how (essentially ordinary) teenage boys can suddenly turn into killers, and what happens to them in groups. I am sure that no single one of those boys could or would have set upon Sophie and her boyfriend Rob alone. But why did they suddenly do so as a group? What possessed them? How could they – as they were beating the life out of her – be so insensitive as to not appreciate the immensity of the act they were engaged in? We all perform countless acts everyday, without thinking: boiling the kettle, running a bath… in less than the time it takes to complete either of these actions those boys had met, taunted, attacked and practically killed Sophie Lancaster and left Robert Maltby scarred (and scared) for life. And with about as much thought and attention as most of us give to boiling the kettle. How can such casualness of thought occur? Is it video games, brutal fathers, uncaring mothers who prepare such boys for acts of sudden and devastating violence? Or none of the above? How on earth can it be avoided? We need and we DEMAND a society where these things don’t – in fact, essentially – cannot – happen.

And let’s be perfectly clear: when Wikipedia says “The police identified the gothic dress of the couple as a possible cause for the attack”, that’s crap.

I am NOT going to live in a world where wearing certain clothing can “cause” you to be attacked and kicked to death in a local park.
The cause of the attack was that the people doing it were being fvcking a55holes, and the police and government in this country need to be doing more than noting the differences between “sub-cultures” and calling for “tolerance”. The only question in my mind is how did these people become fvcking a55holes, and what do we have to do to prevent other teenage boys from making the same “mistake”. For, surely it is a mistake. There can be no sense – surely – in which the boys have succeeded in anything…? Yet, for a time at least, they thought they had. They were stupid and arrogant enough to boast about it: witnesses revealed that afterwards “The killers celebrated their attack on the goths – or “moshers” – by telling friends afterwards that they had “done summat good”, and claiming: “There’s two moshers nearly dead up Bacup park – you wanna see them – they’re a right mess.”

Co-incidentally, right after the news broadcast I caught an episode of The Simpsons (I’m can imagine Sophie and Rob were fans): in it, Bart Simpson saws the head off of the town-square statue of Jebediah Springfield, the town’s founder, in order to impress a group of older bullies. He is chagrined to find that not only do they find his behaviour excessive and unacceptable, but also that the whole town is after him for the crime. It’s possible to understand Bart’s mistake… trying to “fit in” and “impress” older/other kids, to “be hard” and to get respect. But how can those boys in Bacup have taken these needs to such wild extremes?

I find the logic that must at that point have been going on in these kids brains to be incredible. On the one hand, how could they be so cruel and arrogant to have done what they had just done… and to laugh about it? And on the other, even more incredibly, how could they be so STUPID, to think that they could do it in the first place, and that they would get away with it, and that it was in any sense a “good” thing to have done?
Their reaction suggests to me that they have a serious disconnection with reality. Now I worry about all kinds of alienation: I worry that people do not appreciate the human and environmental toll inflicted in our food being grown for us (and just today on the news, we’re told that rising world food prices mean that Haitians are baking themselves mud cakes (water, sand, and a little butter and salt) in order to fend off hunger). I worry about us – as a nation – not appreciating how our energy is provided and not being sufficiently aware of the issues that we are imminently going to have to face about energy supply. I worry about people not “getting” the link between climate change and our everyday lives (and moreover the behaviour of our corporations and governments.) But how could people – people in Lancashire – not “get”, not appreciate, not understand that if you kick someone in the face, and stamp on their head, then that might actually kill them….? How can we be breeding these monsters who – at least when they are in groups – cannot understand basic principles and human needs? Or was the intention to kill Rob and Sophie all along…? If so, then clearly those boys ARE “evil”, whatever that means. But I don’t believe in “evil” and I am giving them the benefit of the doubt, and that is actually more scary, because to realise that these boys did this for understandable human, perhaps even everyday reasons must give us pause for thought about the everyday lives and upbringing of young people in Britain.

As the Chief Prosecutor for Lancashire said “The murder of Sophie Lancaster and the vicious attack on her boyfriend Robert Maltby stand out for their utter pointlessness and sheer brutality. Worse still, it seems very likely that the attack started as a form of amusement for those involved. It raises serious questions about the sort of society which exists in this country at the start of a new millennium which was heralded with such optimism.”

I’m intrigued by the sociology and criminology of this kind of tradedy. What does a future-killer teenager do to relax? What thoughts were running through their head an hour before, a day before, a week before? Did they have any kind of pre-meditation to do this, did they ever fantasise about this, was it an ambition??? Or would they have been as repulsed as most people to consider themselves actually capable of doing it? What did they eat beforehand (probably not a nice bowl of long-term release carbohydrates and fibre)? Were they taking any drugs? What/who had they been shooting in video games the night before? How did their parent(s) treat them? Were they themselves bullied and/or violated? What were their ambitions, for school, for work, for girls? What did they think they would be doing in five years time? Perhaps the context for self-improvement and career prospects in that area of Lancashire doesn’t help: a very dear friend of mine from east Lancs left university with a degree and spent the next few years cleaning and washing coaches and mini-buses. However, he also played lots of video games in his time, including ones that involved fighting and beating people up, yet he was the kindest soul imaginable. So, what made these boys different?

I can’t help but think that the government is implicated in this type of tragedy: it’s not all up to parental responsibility. And clearly if it is, then the parents can’t be trusted, so government – on behalf of society – must intervene. There seems to be some kind of identifiable recipe for this kind of violence, and indeed the developing trend of knife violence and stabbings: poverty, lack of personal achievement and lack of personal prospects, often a feeling of “us” versus “them” (sometimes generated on purpose (such as with gangs)) and a group dynamic.
I can only surmise that such attachment to a group and such hostility towards others is not a natural part of the human condition but a consequence of previous antagonism: essentially, those boys – and others like them – have contempt for the world and the people in it because they feel the world has contempt for them.

So creating a mutually supportive, inclusive, and indeed loving society is not only a nice liberal idea: it seems increasingly to be the only way to pragmatically safeguard the ability of ordinary people to walk around public streets. If an inclusive society where we treat people as citizens and customers – instead of chavs and workers – comes about because of an “enlightened self-interest” rather than a theoretical commitment to equality, I don’t care. The thing that matters is that we achieve what seems to me to be the necessity: an inclusive society – rejecting the Thatcherite creed that there is “no such thing as society” and rejecting the Blairite conceit of “rights are balanced by responsibilities” – is in practice the only way to achieve what all of us need: safety, respect and the guarantee of the most basic right of all: life. With stakes this high, I don’t care if Blair or Brown think such boys need to demonstrate more “responsibility” before they are given more “rights”: if more taxpayers’ money needs to go into such boys in order to not only make them happy in themselves but to make the rest of us safe, then so be it. We need to do it, whether you like at it from the extrinsic point of view (our self-interest) or the intrinsic point of view (their self-interest).

That’s not the attitude of most people in Britain unfortunately, which might explain why government doesn’t try harder to make it happen. The majority attitude (and probably that of the boys’ parents before it happened to them) remains “this is ghastly, how could anyone do that? We don’t want to understand them, they should just be punished: lock them up and throw away the key. End of story”. The majority attitude is one of anger, retribution but not reflection. And I think that’s unhelpful because it doesn’t create the inclusive society we need. But I think it’s justified to be angry at people behaving like those boys. There is an idea that liberals or people on the left should take a dispassionate, “social worker’s” sort of view and understand rather than judge. But I share a little of Sophie Lancaster’s mother’s outrage at what has happened to her daughter: “I want them to never stop suffering for what they’ve done. I don’t think I can even say what I really want to happen to them. It’s made me angrier than I ever thought was really possible; I just don’t understand it.”
We should be angry. A terrible thing has happened. And even if we understand why, we cannot and should not “explain it away”. Everybody must realise this behaviour is unacceptable and why. But equally I think that after the fact it is impossible to put that genie back into the bottle. It’s too late for those boys. And even worse, it is too late for Sophie Lancaster, Robert Maltby and their family and friends. I don’t have a solution either to offer in this post about how to punish and/or rehabilitate those boys. Our planning needs to be for the future, and on a societal rather than an individual level: we need a society that is closely knit enough through ties of caring, parenting, pastoralism and apprenticeship rather than supervision and surveillance. We need a society where these things don’t happen: but the government needs to create that; we can’t pretend the responsibility for people who we’ve never met lies with individuals.

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