I hope, should the hammer ever have cause to fall upon me, I am not caught between it and the anvil of public outrage. Fair and cold justice is a cornerstone of democracy, and the least, should any of us transgress the law, we could ask. Occasionally, a crime ignites public opinion, and, fuelled by a certain kind of tabloid journalism (naming no names,) the application of mob justice is demanded. Paedophiles or crimes related to children are a common theme, and a kind of contemporary witch-hunt ensues.
Another subject that seems to elicit responses disproportionate to the offence caused is racism, particularly very public racism, and so I approach this article with caution, aware it’s likely to garner a certain kind of unthinking response. It’s a sensitive area, so I’ll set out my stall now to avoid accusations of defending racism or racists. I am not, and will not.
I’ve so far avoided writing about the fate of Bolton’s Zaire-born footballer Fabrice Muamba lest I pre-empt his demise and as a result seem crass and unfeeling. Thankfully, due to the efforts of medical staff both on the scene of his collapse and later in the ambulance and hospital, he is making a remarkable recovery. Although considered the national game, and even though it made front page news for days after the event, there are sections of the public who couldn’t care less about a football related story. For those whom this passed by, here is a quick summary of events:
On 17 March 2012, during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, the 23 year old Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack on the pitch. After receiving lengthy medical attention with the game paused, and while tens of thousands of fans looked on concerned, he was transferred to hospital with his outlook not looking good. His heart had stopped for well over an hour and he was, effectively, dead. For me, I’m sure like many others, comparisons with Mark-Vivien Foe, who died during a game for Lyon in 2003, were inevitable. Muamba’s condition slowly improved in the following hours and days, and it now looks as though he will make an eventual recovery, although it is unlikely he will ever resume his sports career.
The response from the wider community of professionals and fans within football was warm and supportive, with cross-club expressions of good will. One of my favourite moments was the placing of a Manchester United scarf – an object I, as a Liverpool fan, might normally be expected to spit on – with the message “one game, one family” outside the Bolton ground. It summed up much of my feelings about the incident.
Inevitably, as the world isn’t lacking in mean-spirited idiots, not everybody echoed those sentiments. Liam Stacey, a student from Pontypridd, took a different view. He used Twitter to post messages of a racist, vulgar and threatening nature to Muamba and to those who expressed their understandable revolt. This is where I risk the greatest chance of being mistaken. I only read his exact words second hand, as no decent publication (the only kind I read), or this website, would repeat them, and they appall me. But, I can’t help but feel some of the resulting public outcry far outstrips the seriousness of the crime.
When charged at Swansea Magistrates’ Court, Stacey pleaded guilty to posting the abusive comments and was sentenced to 56 days imprisonment. It seems, on the surface, a fair judgement, but part of the magistrate’s closing statement set me thinking. “I have no choice,” he said, “but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.” Since when has the legal system paid heed to the degree of public opinion of a crime? If it did, the lynch mobs would be out to hang all paedophiles and child murderers. Justice should be even-handed, regardless of what the public think.
In addition, the University of Swansea, where he was studying biology with the aim of becoming a forensic scientist, have suspended his studies, saying he was “not welcome” on campus, and that his attendance may be a disruptive influence on other students.
A quick opinion poll I conducted amongst friends turned up a variety of opinions on the subject. Some thought it lenient, or at least not extreme. Others thought he was being made an example of, and that it would make others think twice about committing a similar crime – a common misconception of how criminal justice works, hence why countries with the death penalty, such as the US, actually have high murder rates, rather than it acting as a deterrent as you would expect.
The short prison stay, eight weeks of low security incarceration, probably with Sky TV and other home comforts, seems inconsequential to me. Far more damaging, and by far the best punishment for this kind of idiotic crime, is the permanent stain to his reputation. A very public humiliation, using the same media tools he used to spread racial hatred and abuse, is the key to dealing with racist morons. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.
In regards to his seclusion from university, I have my reservations. Rehabilitation is necessary for any criminal, and lack of employment opportunities after a prison sentence is one of the major factors in reoffending. This action by his alma mater risks seriously stunting his entire future – a potentially longer and more severe punishment for what is, when you get down to it, a small and twatty crime.
It would be nice to think this was an isolated incident, perpetrated by a single moron, but apparently this kind of behaviour is catching. Manchester United fanzine, Red Issue, sparked further controversy with a cover which could easily be taken as mocking the Muamba situation, with the headline “Grief Junkies Run Riot” and tasteless comments such as “I’ve tweeted my condolences just in case,” and “Is he dead yet?”
Are we, as a society, becoming overly sensitive to public outrage, or is it just a matter of having the means – via social networking and 24-hour news access – to express our opinions? Either way, these incidents seem to occur with tedious regularity. They make me just want to grab the whole internet community, shake some sense into them while telling them to calm the fuck down and get some perspective. I’ve never believed the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Words can hurt, deeply, and they usually take longer to heal than many wounds. That’s why the correct response to hurtful, or incendiary words, is to use words in response.