Sarah’s Law can’t protect us from fear

The horrific murder of Sarah Payne should not be turned into a reason for suspending the norms and standards of a civilised society.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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The horrific murder of Sarah Payne should not be turned into a reason for suspending the norms and standards of a civilised society.

Since Roy Whiting was convicted of murdering Sarah, debate has raged again about how to keep our children safe from such men. The broader question, however, is what kind of a world do we want our children to grow up in? A society in the grip of fear, loathing and paranoia about a relative handful of predatory paedophiles can offer neither safety nor freedom.

There is no new or growing threat to our children, no secret army of Roy Whitings in the lanes and playgrounds of Britain. The chances of a child being attacked are as rare as ever. Part of the reason why the murder of Sarah Payne was so deeply shocking was because these things do not normally happen to our children.

What is new is the pervasive culture of fear, which not only shapes our response to a brutal child murder, but distorts the way that we and our children live our everyday lives today.

The culture of fear leads us to exaggerate all manner of dangers and risks. And within that overall climate, the vulnerability of children makes us particularly prone to panic about their safety. This emotional response means that child murder is now being discussed as a unique kind of crime, to be treated differently from other offences. Through the eyes of fearful parents (and none of us parents are immune to these fears), that seems to make sense. But from the viewpoint of society, it is setting worrying precedents.

Why do we single out sex offenders as necessarily different from other criminals? If we are to have a register of those who have been convicted of sexual offences, why not a register of convicted murderers, drug dealers, drunk drivers or wife beaters in our communities? It is as if we are adopting the morality of the jailhouse, where any criminal can prove they are a member of a respectable community by at least looking down on the ‘nonces’.

The argument for singling out sexual offenders is made all the weaker by the way in which the register operates. It is a blunt instrument that lumps together all manner of petty sexual offenders, from flashers to men downloading internet porn, with the relatively few predatory paedophiles, creating the false impression that thousands of violent perverts are stalking the land.

Now there are renewed calls for the government to pass ‘Sarah’s Law’, which would make the sex offenders register available to the public. The arguments against Sarah’s Law have stressed that it wouldn’t work, and would only make life more difficult for the police. This is undoubtedly true; in the real world, no legal measure can guarantee the safety of children or anybody else. But this pragmatic case also ignores the wider issues.

In a society where justice means something, people are punished for what they have done, not for what they might do – or even fantasise about doing – in the future. The convention has always been that once criminals have served their time – what used to be called ‘paying their debt to society’ – they are released. Now such important notions of criminal justice are being repeatedly compromised, in the panic to protect children. We all feel for Sarah Payne and her family, but that should not prevent us from questioning what is being proposed and implemented in her name.

No doubt there is a proper debate to be had about the sentencing and treatment of those convicted of such violent crimes. The government is currently reviewing this issue, and spiked’s legal correspondents will return to it in future. But the current debate about Sarah’s Law is a dangerous evasion that projects the problems of the criminal justice system on to society as a whole. It can only reinforce the public climate of fear and, to paraphrase the judge in the Payne trial, give every parent and grandparent more nightmares about the possibility that the next Roy Whiting could be living next door.

If you raise questions about society’s unhealthy obsession with paedophiles, you risk being caricatured as a champion of ‘perverts’ rights’. I am not concerned what happens to a child killer like Whiting. I worry about the rest of us. The response to cases like this reveal a lot about how we see ourselves and one another.

To judge by much of the discussion this week, one could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a society populated by violent perverts, victims, lynch mobs and spineless politicians, only kept back from the edge of the abyss by beleaguered policemen. That is not the world in which I want my children to grow up.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

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Topics Politics


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