After Soham – mourners and ‘the mob’
The public displays of grief in Soham and the crowd rage in Peterborough are expressions of the same rampant emotionalism.
What’s the difference between a ‘loving community’ and a ‘hate-filled mob’?
About 40 miles – the distance from Soham to Peterborough – to judge by reports of the different public outbursts of emotionalism we have witnessed in response to the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
Since police confirmed that the missing Cambridgeshire 10-year-olds had been murdered, the media has been full of the outpouring of communal grief in the girls’ little hometown of Soham, Cambridgeshire. People have flocked to shed tears and leave flowers at the local church, while others have sent messages of condolence from throughout the UK and around the world.
These expressions of grief have been reported as candles of light in Soham’s darkness. They are widely interpreted as proof that tragedies can ‘bring out the best in people’, and demonstrate the underlying strength of community spirit in an age when it is usually noticeable by its absence.
But days later, on 22 August 2002, the mood in much of the media changed. Now the headlines were about the ‘Rage of the mob’, as a crowd of 500 people in Peterborough hurled abuse, eggs and themselves at the police convoy carrying Maxine Carr into court. Carr has been charged with perverting the course of justice in relation to the girls’ deaths; her boyfriend, school caretaker Ian Huntley, has been charged with their murder.
Many reports talked fearfully of the ‘lynch mob’ or ‘hate mob’ atmosphere outside the court, as the crowd – a good few of them with small children in tow – screamed for Carr to be hanged and left to ‘rot in hell’.
The mood might seem different. But both the public displays of grief in Soham and the crowd rage in Peterborough can be seen as expressions of the same rampant emotionalism, among people setting normal reasoned responses aside and letting their instinctive feelings off the leash. And in both instances, there seems to be something inauthentic about the emotions being laid bare.
Of course, millions of us have been genuinely moved by those terrible murders. But that cannot explain why many people seem so consumed with grief and anger over the deaths of girls whom we had never heard of when they were alive. These outbursts appear to say more about the people involved than about the tragedy of Holly and Jessica.
Several women surveying the floral tributes in Soham have been quoted remarking that ‘It’s like Princess Diana all over again’. They have a point. The unprecedented response when Diana died in a car crash five years ago set the new standard for displays of public grief, with the mass flower-laying, book-signing and other rituals with which we have since become familiar.
Then too, many noted the ‘ugly’ face of the new emotionalism, the intolerance towards anybody from the Queen downwards who failed to display the required degree of grief. And then too, it seemed to some of us that this sudden outburst of feeling for a celebrity princess was a kind of ersatz emotionalism, something quite distinct from genuine personal grief.
What the response to Diana’s death brought to the surface of British society was a phenomenon we have described as Mourning Sickness (witnessed in embryo after earlier tragedies, notably the massacre of children in Dunblane). It allowed millions to come together in a kind of community of suffering. At a time when society seems ever-more fragmented, it provided a rare opportunity for people to experience something collectively. For a short time after Diana’s death, those searching anxiously for some certainty and sense of belonging could acquire a shared pain and sense of loss.
We have seen the same pattern repeated in response to subsequent high-profile deaths and disasters, notably the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne two summers ago. The Soham murders are the latest to have prompted a Diana-style response. Many have seemed eager to feel part of the tragic events, taking part in the post-Diana rituals and adding the new one of sending condolences via the internet. The result looms like a strange cross between a medieval pilgrimage and a hi-tech virtual community.
Those who joined ‘the mob’ outside that Peterborough court might appear to have different motives, yet many seemed moved by the same desire to feel part of something. ‘I got up this morning’, said one mother of six, ‘and decided to come down to be with people who are feeling the same’.
There is something unhealthy and potentially dangerous about all this. It is a morbid symptom of a society that needs a tragedy in order to create some passing semblance of community. The experience of suffering – especially the second-hand experience of other people’s suffering – is no basis for creating real social solidarity. There is a danger that you end up with little more than an atomised community of victims – mistrustful, inward-looking, irrational, angry. Another name for that kind of community might be a lynch mob.
Many in the media and political elite are uncomfortable when public grief turns to rage. Yet some of them must take a large share of the blame for stoking up the ongoing panic about predatory paedophiles, and for playing on public emotions over the Soham murders. Those who begin articles by writing that ‘There are no words to express how we feel…None of us can know the parents’ torment’, and then spend a thousand words telling us exactly how both we and those tormented parents are feeling, deserve to be pelted with eggs.
There is a discussion now about turning some of the tributes to Holly and Jessica into a permanent memorial. There have been debates about how best to do the same for Princess Diana since her death. Yet five years on, as the wrangles continue on committees, Diana herself has been largely forgotten by the millions who were supposed to be inconsolable at her loss. The emotional roadshow has moved on, finding other victims to focus on. Eventually it will do so again, leaving Holly and Jessica’s haunted families to get on with the real grieving (when they are not being dragged into TV studios to comment on the next missing child case).
Perhaps it was not so inappropriate that many took small children, not just to the grieving Soham churchyard but also to the angry court protest in Peterborough. There is something decidedly infantile about these unrestrained outbursts of public emotionalism that can now appear in a moment, and then disappear again almost as quickly.
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