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2 September 2002

The lynch mob at work

Maxine Carr is already condemned; in Nigeria, at least they wait for the evidence

By Theodore Dalrymple

The day I first arrived in Nigeria, in the northern city of Maiduguri, everyone was away at the public executions. The men to be executed were armed robbers. I didn’t feel particularly outraged, because I knew that public executions would draw huge crowds wherever in the world they were held. I also suspected what I discovered on several subsequent visits to Nigeria to be true, namely that the biggest armed robbers of all were the police.

Now, in accordance with sharia law, the people are going to stone an adulteress to death in northern Nigeria. Those who will cast the stones (if the highest court in the land permits the sentence to be carried out) will no doubt have a whale of a time: for few things are more enjoyable than unutterable cruelty committed in the name of justice and virtue.

The way in which the police van carrying Maxine Carr, the woman charged with perverting the course of justice during the investigation into the abduction and killing of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, was attacked by a howling mob demonstrates how popular public executions and sharia law would be in Britain.

One suspects that, given the chance, much of the population would probably dispense with due process altogether as being unnecessarily and dangerously cumbersome. Indeed, this is the view of successive British governments, which have been slowly eroding the accumulated rules of due process in this country.

It might be considered unfair to compare the stoning to death of an adulteress with the behaviour of a mob outside a British court. After all, adultery is not a serious offence in the eyes of civilised people, but the abduction and murder of two little girls most certainly is. The two cases are simply not comparable.

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On the other hand, the adulteress, Amina Lawal, has at least been found guilty according to the evidence. This is not true of Maxine Carr, who has not been proved guilty of anything: but in cases involving sexual offences or children, the mob, like so many in contemporary Britain, has no conception of innocence until proof of guilt. Indeed, acquittal means nothing to them: a person is guilty if charged, or even the subject of rumour, and what the courts determine is of no account whatsoever. Not long ago, I had a patient who had been charged with a sexual offence and who was conclusively proven in court to be innocent: in fact, two of his accusers were subsequently imprisoned for perjury. But it made no difference: he was obliged, for his own safety, to change his name and live elsewhere. In much of Britain, mob law rules, and it cannot be too long before a lynching takes place.

The hypocrisy of the executioners and would-be executioners in Nigeria is no greater than that of the British mob. In Nigeria, armed robbers execute armed robbers: in Britain, child abusers abuse child abusers.

Even if one did not know that there were young children in the mob outside the courthouse, who were terrified by the heaving, menacing mass and the obscenities screamed by the adults, one would know from experience (by the faces, by the deportment, by the mode of dress, by the manner of speech) that many of the adults in that mob were themselves responsible for the abuse of children: by neglect, by abandonment, by serial step-parenting, by alternating arbitrary discipline with gross overindulgence, by violence and by all the other means by which contemporary British parents condemn their children to a life of asocial egotism and continual, sordid crisis.

I hold no brief for the northern Nigerians: the cruelty and hypocrisy of the sentence upon Amina Lawal appals me. But I live in Britain, and what I see around me appals me more. I see mass incompetence, laziness, indifference, stupidity, cruelty and neglect in the rearing of children, for which no amount of ersatz emotion over the death of the two little girls can compensate.

This emotion is to true feeling what kitsch is to art; and it is the product not only of bad taste, but of profound and entirely justified guilt.

The author is a prison psychiatrist