Why inhumanity is winning

It will win only if we let it. It has been said that, for evil to flourish, it takes only a few good men to do nothing about it.

What makes us human? Well, we’d have to define “human”, wouldn’t we? Apart from the trivial meaning of simply “pertaining to a member of the Homo sapiens species”, the word is usually used in two ways, which are related . . .

1) Characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses: they are only human, and therefore mistakes do occur; the risk of human error.

2) Characteristic of people’s better qualities, such as kindness or sensitivity: the human side of politics is getting stronger.

These definitions are straight out of Apple’s dictionary and are probably typical.

Here we see the qualities that we hope are to be found in us . . . and it’s noticeable that they are not the qualities of accumulating riches or power, or dominating what surrounds us. On the contrary, the qualities that we instinctively feel make us special as a race are the opposite of what so much of the world actually strives for. We apparently admire vulnerability, consciousness of our own weakness, and consideration of the sensibilities of other beings around us.

So it doesn’t take 700 words to define what makes us human – by common consent, it’s kindness. But if this is the general perception of what there is to be proud of in human behaviour, why is it that, when we look around, so often we see the very opposite? We see decisions being made purely on the basis of money, or to benefit the careers of those wielding power. We see people being cruel to children, to the disadvantaged, and to the other creatures with whom we share this glistening blue planet. We see people enjoying the pain they can inflict on other beings, and vigorously defending their right to do so as a “civil liberty”. It’s almost impossible to believe, but there are people at this moment working night and day to keep hold of their right to indulge in despicable cruelty.

Once upon a time it was legal to keep black men in chains, to burn so-called witches at the stake, to dig out badgers and use them as “bait” for training dogs to be vicious, to hunt wild animals with packs of dogs that would rip the quarry limb from limb. All of these things are now illegal, but there are still teams of people working to bring back blood sports – these inhuman behaviours. And they are supported by many rich and powerful people in Britain today.

It’s worse than this. Just as the laws that protect children from abuse are flouted behind closed doors, and time and time again atrocities are exposed, the laws, such as they are, against wildlife crime are routinely being broken in our countryside. Law and order have broken down. Thousands of badgers are being slaughtered and thrown on the roads. Fox hunts regularly hunt foxes to death, in contempt of the law, which the present regime is refusing to enforce. The sickening practice of badger-baiting is rife and actually increasing.

It appears that the inhuman side of humans is winning. But it will win only if we let it. It has been said that, for evil to flourish, it takes only a few good men to do nothing about it.

Perhaps, after all, the almost laughable simplistic generalisation is true. Perhaps there are two kinds of human being. On the one hand, are those who understand that we are all – human and non-human – just animals, and that the gift which has been given to Man is awareness, to make the world a kind place for all. And, on the other hand, are those who don’t “get it”; who cling to the idea that Man, or more accurately they, are the only thing that really matters on this planet, and that all other beings –men, women, children and animals – are to be used and abused at their pleasure.

It is shocking. But after the past few years, in which I have seen so much awful cruelty, and so much shining goodness, it seems to me that the good can never persuade the bad to change. The amount of wasted effort is enormous and depressing. All we can hope for is a decent, benign, compassionate government one day which will outlaw cruelty of all kinds, and enforce decent behaviour on those who cannot see that they are doing anything wrong. That has been the pattern in the past.

But are we human? Are we a humane race? Looking around at the concrete world we have created, in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the weak become persecuted to extinction, I seriously wonder if we have the right to call ourselves, as a race, human. We have a hell of a long way to go.

Brian May is a guitarist, formerly with the rock band Queen, and an astrophysicist This article is the third in a series published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket