Show Hide image

The NS Interview: Donna Marsh O’Connor, peace activist

“I can’t believe I haven’t seen my daughter in ten years”

You lost your daughter in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Does the tenth anniversary feel particularly painful?
You want people to remember the date for the right reason - that hate engenders hideous things. Time heals in some ways, but I can't believe I haven't seen her in ten years. I did an interview in New York City recently and came home on the plane, and when the lights dimmed in the cabin, I lost it. I didn't want to be on my own on a plane sobbing. I just kept thinking about the day of her birth.

Do you remember 11 September 2001 clearly?
Of course. To be honest, I don't want to remember. It was absolutely exquisite: the crispest, clearest, sunniest morning on the East Coast, warm and beautiful, and sad because it was getting near the end of summer - but it was almost so beautiful that it made you OK with that.

How did 9/11 transform the US?
From that moment, there was a decision on the part of the Bush administration to give up the American way of life. In so many significant ways - the constitution, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, torture, water- boarding, Halliburton [oilfields], endless war.

Has your perception of your country changed?
I was raised on this heady idea that America had an ethical and moral standing in the world. I loved America. I would go to assembly and sing "America Is Beautiful", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "The Marine Anthem". To find that at the centre of it was this horrible myth, or the crafting of a lie . . . I don't know any more.

Since then, you've become an activist. Why?
I still cringe when people call me an activist. It had a resonance that you were boringly committed to a cause at the expense of everything else in your life. I taught writing and rhetoric in American public discourse. And then this happened and suddenly everything I valued about this country in fundamental ways shifted.

What did you feel you had lost?
The freedom to speak about any issue and still be patriotic - suddenly there were these subjects that could not be discussed. I think of 9/11 as a hideous murder that was perhaps used as a political measure. It got made into something much larger to keep us at war.

You have said you would never celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Why?
I never could hate Bin Laden. When he decided to bomb embassies and the USS Cole, and make 9/11 his project, he committed suicide. I make no apologies that I see him as a human being. And a murderer - a mass murderer - but there are other mass murderers who aren't held so accountable. Please don't misunderstand me: I am not saying he should be forgiven - but there are people who capitalised on 9/11 to commit even greater atrocities in this world.

How do you think President Obama has handled these issues?
Obama had the opportunity to drive home the cost of war, to talk honestly to the American people about everything George Bush had left us. But his eye was on his eight-year term as president. You are elected for one term, and you need to serve that one term with integrity and dignity. In my mind, he has not done that.

Do you believe that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the US?
Absolutely. People have been set up as scapegoats. They were treated as war criminals. If we give a bunch of zealots microphones as large as the one they've given to Michele Bachmann, we will be fighting each other for a long time.

Is there anything that gives you hope?
I have lived my entire life as an optimist. But everything tells me this is going to get worse before it turns back again. I fear for my children. I'm afraid that things are going to play out in ways that are devastating. Like fires that are natural and helpful because they burn everything off and allow things to restart, it's the same with civilisation - we will probably burn ourselves off until we grow up again.

Do you vote?
Absolutely.

I assume not for the Republicans?
No. Locally, I have a lot of Republican friends; they're dear, compassionate people. So, at the local level, I'd vote Republican, but nationally, when the stakes are this high and the discourse is so fragmented, I have not voted Republican.

Is there anything you regret?
There are a lot of things I regret. Most of them have to do with that morning.

Is there a plan?
The world is very short on compassion. I'm going to continue to write and speak, and hope that has a half-life.

Are we all doomed?
No. Something has to happen so that the ugly doesn't always have to win out. The ugly has much more powerful physical weapons, but we have much more powerful spiritual weapons and we just need to get them heard.

Defining Moments

1950s Born in the Bronx, New York
1984 Begins teaching writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University
2001 Her pregnant daughter, Vanessa Lang Langer, dies in the 11 September attacks
2002 Helps found Peaceful Tomorrows, a network of relatives and friends of the attack victims, calling for an end to war
2010 Speaks out in defence of a proposal to build an Islamic community centre near Ground Zero in New York

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

Getty
Show Hide image

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 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11