MurderThe UN has issued a report on the 437,000 murders carried out around the world in 2013. It is daunting to see how many lives are snatched away on some areas of the globe. In Honduras, for example, more than one in 300 men between the ages of 30 and 44 were killed. Men, indeed, were far likelier to be slain than women, though this had a lot to do with banditry and gangsterism and was not always the case in nations that are safe from them.

One’s chances of being killed in Britain are far less significant than in South America. About one in 100,000 Britons are murdered (though, of course, it would be higher without our first world standards of medical treatment).

Thoughts of being killed probably take up more space in our brains than the risk suggests that it should. I suspect this is at least in part due to our judging the threat not merely by the likelihood of meeting killers but the ease with which it seems that one could kill. I remember standing in a tube station, near the yellow lines than run along the edge of the platform. It occurred to me that if a madman happened to be near, it would be a cinch to dart forward and shove me onto the tracks. Such thoughts are no more regular than thoughts of D.H. Lawrence and Ultimate Frisbee but the point is that our fears are not dependent on the statistical likelihood of events so much as the ease with which they can be imagined. We tend not discuss them in such terms, of course, but perhaps we don’t want to give people ideas.

The UntouchablesIt takes no great insight to observe that prohibition is not held in high regard. Indeed, when the term is used at all it is liable to be as a pejorative. Simon Jenkins exemplifies this view as he comments on the poaching trade…

Ivory is the cocaine of south-east Asia. Millions of people demand it, and the world thinks it can stop them by banning supply…You cannot stifle demand by banning supply. You merely raise price.

I know little of poaching, and Mr Jenkins may be right that the demand for ivory cannot be suppressed. That dismays me but emotion alone does not produce change. Yet I would like to address the implied claim that prohibition is always futile. I have no designs on alcohol or cigarettes but I can think of cases where we all endorse it. There is a demand for child pornography. Thousands of depraved people want it. No intelligent person imagines that we can eradicate this hideous phenomenon but I have read no one who thinks that attempts to suppress it to the best of our abilities are not worthwhile, or that we should accept the indulgence of the perversion.

It seems plausible, to me, that prohibition could work. Millions of people like drugs, and love to dispose of the evidence of their crimes, while a far smaller amount long for ivory, and want it sitting in their homes or round their necks. Convincing these people that they are exposing themselves to disgrace and impoverishment does not sound absurd. Again, I am biased towards policing, as the death of the elephant and rhino species’ and Jenkins’ solution of reducing them to farmed commodities both seem appalling, but I cannot know if it has a chance of succeeding. All I ask is that people do not write prohibition off in its entirety. Some appetites must be repressed.

Jenkins, by the way, produces one of the sadder lines in written history when he suggests that if elephants and rhinos are to survive “some value [must] be imputed to them”. Must be imputed. For, to some, they have no value themselves.

GarbageResearch has long suggested that cancer rates in Naples are higher than those elsewhere, and this has been attributed to the corruption of its waste disposal industry. The shameless mafiosos of the the Camorra are alleged to burn and bury toxic waste in the countryside around Campania, poisoning its water and food. The local population will no longer tolerate the mob…

Tens of thousands of people have protested in Italy’s southern city of Naples against illegal dumping of toxic waste blamed on the local mafia.

Demonstrators carried photos of relatives who they said had died of cancer as a result of the pollution.

The mafia pose as friends of the people and protectors of their communities, which is ironic as they feed off local businesses like helminths in an animal’s gut. In Sicily, the Addiopizzo movement have defied Cosa Nostra extortion, and it seems that the trend may be spreading the nation…

Businesses that refuse to pay protection money have organized an “anti-racket” fair in Naples to urge shoppers to patronize firms that are standing up to criminals.

The fair, which will operate from December 6 to 8 in the city’s Piazza del Plebiscito, is designed to raise awareness of the organized-crime problem that plagues so many businesses, event promoters say.

Organised crime relies on the complicity of the ignorant or intimidated people that it dwells among, and I am pleased to see awareness of the need to resist.

clocking inTo give thanks to soldiers would be controversial enough but to give thanks to the police would be liable to provoke disdain in anybody to the left of Norman Tebbit. Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson are more liable to be associated with the cops than anything except The Bill, Hot Fuzz and that video of policemen the Notting Hill Carnival.

On the other hand, I was reading about Ian Watkins, whose band was immensely popular when I was growing up and whose depravity is thus somehow even more shocking than it would have otherwise been, and it struck me that people had to investigate this man – to observe the evidence, and not through their fingers but with attentive, impartial eyes. They had to sit in front of him and his monstrous cohorts in the spirit of dispassionate professionalism rather than human disgust.

Such people, I doubt it is an exaggeration to claim, sacrifice their emotional stability in order that such specimens might be obstructed and imprisoned. They are not often recognised for this work because, of course, nobody like to dwell on what the work entails, but this makes it all the more creditable. Thanks, guys. Really.

EdwinI am always fascinated by unexplained mysteries; the shadows lurking in our comprehension of the past. The strange event that has intrigued me this week is not the assassination of JFK but the Wall Street bombing, which killed 38 Americans on 16th September 1920 and went unsolved (though Italian anarchists are still blamed for the crime). A detail that caught my eye was  a reference to a man who had been a suspect after warning numerous people to avoid the area around the date of the atrocity. His tale is an odd one.

Edwin P. Fischer had been a successful tennis player, who had been ranked in the top 5 competitors in the United States. By 1920, though, he had withdrawn to obscurity. Days after the bombing, Mr Fischer was taken to New York and interviewed by detectives after it was revealed that he had warned friends, family members and even the caretaker of a local tennis club that Wall Street was to be attacked on the 15th or 16th of September. “Dear Shep,” he had been found to have written to a friend, “Keep away from Wall Street this Wednesday afternoon. There never was a road that didn’t have a turn”.

It was as he walked through the train station, The New York Times reported days later, that things became even stranger…

Three cigars were thrown into his path near the Lexington Avenue exit. He stooped and picked them up, saying, “I don’t smoke but I’ll keep them.” The cigars were taken from him and cut open to guard against the possibility that they might contain a message, drug or implement, but nothing of the sort was found.

Meanwhile, the detectives interviewed the suspect…

To all questions as to the source of the information which led him to send warnings of the explosion, he replied that it was a “premonition” or that he had “got it out of the air”.

It was growing ever more clear that something was not right about the prophetic player…

…the visible grey suit was only one of three worn by Fischer. Under that was another business suit, and underneath that, in place of the usual undergarments, was a tennis shirt and flannel trousers. Fischer…explained that this arrangement had several advantages…He was ready for a tennis match at all times, as all he had to do to appear in tennis costume was to shed his two outer suits…

The detectives had clearly decided that Fischer was not a threat to their citizens…

After Fischer had been questioned by Mr. Talley for some time he turned suddenly and said, “I don’t know how long I am going to be here, and I am very hungry. Let’s get something to eat.” Mr. Talley gave his assent and the detectives took him out for lunch.

Talley, who was the Assistant District Attorney, ruled that “he [who] not the type of man to whom any of those involved in the conspiracy to produce the explosion would have given information”. His warnings were ruled to have been coincidences, and he was ruled to be insane. This belief was inspired not merely by his behaviour but by the news that his family had tried to have him committed days before the explosion.

Looking back, this seems no less bizarre than it must have seemed then. The tennis player, dressed in his whites beneath a suit, almost seems so bizarre as to be contrived, like Blackadder with pencils up his nose, muttering “wibble”. Even his name sounds as if it could have been designed for a solitary eccentric. I am no fan of Laingesque mental health relativism. Ill health can distinguish people, and often in tragic ways. Yet it is interesting how the deceptions and delusions of our collective life can make madness seem so profound. Still, as long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the garden

hoaxSilliness is as avoidable on Facebook as snow is in the Arctic but I was especially struck by this curious post that a vague associate had decided to share (“sharing”, for those who have avoided the clutches of Zuckerberg, entails the reproduction of other peoples’ posts)…

Just wanted to tell all my friends in somerset something one of my students mums told me. Earlier on this week a little girl went missing in asda in bridgwater. Asda closed the store so that knowone could get in or out. The little girl was found in the toilets with a foreign man and women who were changing her clothes and cutting her hair. The little girl was 4 or 5, I believe, and blond haired. Luckily she was found safe and returned to her parents. Felt that everyone should be aware of it.

Now, anyone who is thinking with the slightest rationality would observe several things: first that this claim is based on the word of an anonymous source who might be unreliable; second that there are no first hand reports of this occurrence; third that it is a strange coincidence that this should happen a week after the controversy in Greece (and fourth, perhaps, though this is more tangential, that a kidnapper wouldn’t hang around at the scene of the crime). As it happens, the police shot down this rumour, which bears an intriguing similarity to old hoaxes in which foreigners steal children. The only quirk of this adaptation is that the child is blonde. Funny that.

What is fascinating is that almost twelve thousand people have shared this story. They find a stranger’s students’ mother’s story that compelling. “OMG”, they write. “Wtf”. Soon, expressions of shock give way to revenge fantasies. “I would have chopped there fackin fingers off,” says one. “There is only one way to cure people that try to take children,” warns another. More peaceable citizens lament the darkness of the modern age. “There was a time when it was quite safe to go to the super market,” a woman reflects. Quite safe, you understand. It may still have been risky.

I take crime seriously. I am thankful to have been born into a country that has such little violence and theft compared to other nations but, still, it has too much of them. It is not pleasing to move abroad – to a far more impoverished place than my hometown, no less – and feel distinctly safer. Yet I also think the misguided fear of crime can be a serious problem. The many thousands of people who shared this update, and their thousands of friends, and all of their poor kids, may now have their experiences darkened by this myth. Local migrants, meanwhile, might have faced a somewhat baffling hostility.

I suspect more could be done to combat such thoroughly modern misinformation. There is no cure for human gullibility, and we can only be grateful that its English forms rarely inspire mobs or plots, but one can uproot the tales that it feeds off. It annoys me that amid reports on local photographers and Taekwondo hopefuls the regional papers published nothing to assuage the natives’ fears. Some people’s credulity is irresolvable but one can at least attempt to empower their more sensible friends.

BowesLaurie Penny has praise for Russell Brand…

I am glad – profoundly glad – that somebody has finally been permitted to say in public what commentators and politicians have not yet dared to suggest: that rising up together in anger, as young people did in London and elsewhere in 2011, might be a mighty fine idea.

For a moment, I presumed that this was a reference to the student protests but, no, they were in 2010. Penny is referring to the London riots.

I do not know what Ms Penny’s memories of the riots are but mine are not of “righteous rage”, as Mr Brand phrased it. I think of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir, who were killed in a hit-and-run attack while defending their community from rioters; Richard Mannington Bowles, who was beaten to death while trying to extinguish a fire and Ashraf Rossli, who was attacked and then robbed by people who had pretended to help him. I think of the hundred private homes that were burned; the shops that were torched and the thuggishness that was so dramatically irresponsible that fire engines had their windows smashed when they arrived to fight the flames.

Penny can believe that such acts were inspired by “anger”, though the fact that so many of the participants had faced multiple prior convictions suggests that a good many of them required no such excuse to vandalise and steal. What I find disgusting, though, is the idea that they provide a model for future protests. It is evidence of a bizarre ethical and intellectual failure that one can romanticise this cause of death and destruction in a piece that is devoted to the horrors of casual sexism.

It is interesting that a journal of left wing opinion is so receptive to calls for violent upheaval. One can only speculate as to their response should a Spectator columnist demand attacks on wind farms, speed cameras or publishing houses.

SpermWerner Herzog’s Into the Abyss is the story of two men who were convicted of murder in their teens. One of them is on death row, and the other is serving a life sentence. Given the initial crime and the judgement that it inspired, much of the film concerns itself with the ending of lives. This, however, is inextricable from themes related to their beginning: how a baby might grow to be a murderer. Given this, it is surprising how little attention is given to the fact that the prison bride of the convict who had been spared the death penalty was somehow pregnant. The lovebirds can only touch hands in their meetings, so Herzog guessed that his semen had been smuggled from the prison.

This is something that might happen in The Sopranos but could it take place in real life? It may not have, naturally, but it is possible. In 2002, Troy Kemmerer, a prison guard, was convicted of bribery as part of an investigation into corrupt practices at a Pennsylvania jail. Other guards had been smuggling foodstuffs and cleaning products but Mr Kemmerer’s scheme was a little more elaborate. He provided cryogenic sperm kits for inmates, and snuck off to their girlfriends bearing their frozen seed. His ingenious operation was exposed when “a convicted Colombo family hit man in prison since 1988” was observed “showing off a toddler he called “my son””.

A more recent case involved Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail. Dr. Salim Abu Khaizaran claims to have smuggled sperm out of prisons in anything from cups to ointment containers. It would have to be a damned efficient operation, as semen cannot endure normal temperatures for too long. It is possible, though if I were a convicted terrorist I might at least inquire after a paternity test.

Derrin Bardsley managed to reverse the process. She became pregnant while in prison, charged with murdering a 14-year-old in Australia. According to her account, she had a condom full of sperm passed to her during a courtroom. The child never grew to know the crimes of its mother or the circumstances of its conception. Bardsley miscarried while she was in jail.

I felt a bit depressed on learning of the pregnancy in Herzog’s film. A child with a less than ideal set of genes is to grow with its Dad in prison and a mother who’s drawn to convicts. Could life deal worse cards? The most moving section of the film showed the convict’s father, who was himself in prison, lamenting his failure to be there for his kids, two of him had now joined him in the penitentiary. One of the reasons I am prejudiced against capital punishment is that it forces humans to play God; deciding who should live and who should die. In an age of birth control and artificial insemination, one could say the same about childbearing. At the least, one must be a loving and generous one.

Day TodayIt has often been observed that when a murderer has been arrested, women have promptly fallen in love with them. Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez attracted scores of admirers as they were convicted for serial killing and rape, while Luka Magnotta, a Canadian cannibal, has inspired the creation of a fan site.

This phenomenon, it seems, has quite a heritage. I have been reading a collection of Mark Twain’s writings, and came across a story, “Lionizing Murderers”, in which murder and capital punishment are suggested to be a wise course of action as “the best and purest young ladies of the village will assemble in your cell and sing hymns”. A footnote adds that in a real case, in 1842, a man who had been condemned to death for murdering his sweetheart…

…was visited by some pious and benevolent ladies of Nottingham, some of whom declared he was a child of God, if there ever was one. One of the ladies sent him a white camelia to wear at his execution.

The sexual attraction to killers has a name, it turns out: “hybristophilia”. Katherine Ramsfeld, an associate professor of forensic psychology, suggests that it may be prompted by the idea that there is vulnerability within the hardest men, and that one’s affections are enough to melt the hardest hearts. An admirer of James Holmes, the man arrested for shooting a dozen people in Colorado cinema, gave this quote a reporter in January…

“When they showed photos of him, everything I saw were cries for help,” said Benjamin, who says she joined the church of Latter Day Saints nine years ago after her dentist committed suicide and is dating a man who knows of her affection for the accused killer. “He wanted someone to stop him. He knows he is in trouble. He stands and sits when he is told. There is a kidlike quality to him.”

There is a little boy inside of him, in other words, and it needs “someone” to nurture it. This motherly instinct hints towards the possibility that these admirers are not as submissive as they seem. Mike Aamodt, a professor of psychology, has observed that they are in a position to control the relationship: knowing at all times where to find their loved ones; knowing that they will  be dependent on the support of admirers such as themselves and knowing that if they do end up being electrocuted there will never be another person to have their affections. Emphasising this aspect might of the phenomenon be a means of ensuring that disturbed men to do not it as a perk of the supposed glamour of serial killing.

Chinese whispersThe sceptics community has been tearing itself to bits. You might think the far left is dysfunctional for splintering over disagreements regarding its treatment of sexual abuse but these evangelical empiricists have gone one step further: they are accusing each other of being sexual abusers. Among those who have been charged with harassment and rape are an author of twenty books, a winner of the Oersted Medal and the Editor in Chief of an acclaimed science advocacy magazine.

It is not my place to judge whether these claims are true or false, but I have been disturbed by some of the lax empirical standards of supposed sceptics. The worst case was a mysterious blog titled “More Will Be Named”, on which various public figures were charged with abuse by anonymous complainants. This was renounced by some of the more prominent bloggers who have led the campaign against abuse, but not before its nameless accusations against a much-loved science educator led others to proclaim their sadness in the face of what they clearly assumed was the man’s certain or at least probable guilt.

I hate the idea that such damaging claims can be made and believed without being subjected to investigation. The people who have made and promoted allegations of rape have suggested that attempting to prosecute these men is too daunting a prospect, so they are merely trying to warn their potential victims. There are two problems with this, the first being that if the target of an allegation is guilty his potential victims might not be aware of the claims and the second being that if their attempts are effective but he turns out to have been innocent they will have despoiled his reputation; turned many people against him and threatened his livelihood, which would not be trivial. For all of the shortcomings of legal systems, they are preferable to rumour and tribal prejudice.

This brings to mind something that occurred to me after I voiced doubts about Operation Yewtree. Many of us thought, last year, that it must be hard to convict public figures because their victims were put off by their status. True enough. I suspect, though, that a different type person is more likely to accuse them; even if they have no cause to. False rape accusations are a real phenomenon, perpetrated by attention seekers and grievance-mongers, but they are not very frequent as, amongst other things, one rarely benefits from them. The attention one receives from normal rape cases is not especially great or intensely sympathetic and the grievances people have for each other are rarely so heated as to provoke such action.

When public figures are involved, new motives can be introduced. The imaginations of fantasists can be stoked; such as that of the woman who bombarded Tucker Carlson with letters, emails and gifts before accusing him of rape. The attention one receives is more significant. Robin Van Persie was falsely accused of violating a woman who would never have seen her name in the papers if she had accused some bloke named Robbie Beasley. It is unpleasant to imagine that people might be so cruel or unstable as to allow such thoughts to lead them to deception but, then, it is no more unpleasant than imagining that people might harass or rape.

This is not to say, “Pity the poor celebrities.” They have wealth that allows them to pay for lawyers who can biscuit crumbs of made-up stories. What they are deserving of, though, is the chance to have allegations studied in a third party context. People they might know in the future, meanwhile, and avoid unfairly or accept naively, are entitled to their being subjected to investigation. I hope that the sceptics and the charges that they face inspire the sort of balanced assessment that one would think befits their kind. As I have mentioned it, I also hope that someone more qualified than Susan Boyle’s biographer does what the police failed to do and analyses the claims made against Savile; for while I retain faith in some of the allegations made against him they should not be taken at face value simply because he is dead. We live, at present, in a nation where people believe that he donned robes and chanted “Ave Satanas” as paedophilic Satanists conducted abuse around him, and I think there is room for scepticism.

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