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28 October 1996

Victims are not Oracles

Mark Ryan objects to the homage paid to society's victims

There is no doubt that Frances Lawrence suffered a terrible loss when her husband was stabbed to death outside his school in North London. Likewise one can have only the deepest sympathy with the grief of the Dunblane parents. But there is absolutely no reason to treat the prescriptions for wider social problems of either the parents or of Mrs Lawrence with the reverence and awe with which they have been received.

We now seem to have reached the point where the victim of a crime or atrocity is endowed with the sort of infallibility which Catholics once accorded the Pope. This is not just irrational, it is extremely dangerous.

From the moment the Cullen Inquiry into the Dunblane massacre got under way, an unspoken assumption seemed to be made that whatever the Dunblane parents said about gun control had to be right. While gun enthusiasts tried to defend the existing arrangements, the assumption that the parents possessed some superior wisdom was never questioned. Yet there is no connection at all between being a victim of a massacre and understanding the complexities of the law on firearms.

One Dunblane parent, writing to a Sunday newspaper last week declared that because he had lost a child at Dunblane he was therefore "uniquely qualified" to speak on gun control. The exact opposite is true. Because he has suffered so much from a madman with a gun makes him uniquely "unqualified" to speak on the broader issue of gun laws. His tragic experience will make it almost impossible for him to avoid getting emotional about the issue. Rather than being infallibly right he will almost certainly be wrong.

Good law-making requires balanced judgement and reasoned debate, not the sort of emotional excess whereby anybody who might disagree with the parents can be charged with showing disregard for the memory of the dead children. There are many people and interest groups whose points of view should have been more properly canvassed, but who were bulldozed out of the way in deference to the parents. In a truly civilised society, the Dunblane parents would have been left in peace to overcome their grief, not encouraged to close down all debate with a campaign of emotional blackmail.

Those who have suffered from some random tragedy should not be turned into oracles. Suffering does not make people wiser, it often has the opposite effect. Just as the Dunblane parents were turned into the sole fonts of wisdom on the complex issue of gun law, now Frances Lawrence has been set up as the authority not just on school discipline but on the vast question of how to rebuild society. The servile manner in which the leaders of all the political parties, heads of teaching unions as well as many newspaper editors immediately declared their absolute agreement with everything Mrs Lawrence said was shameful. Mrs Lawrence is not the voice of God. One can have nothing but sympathy for what she has gone through, but that does not mean that her views must be treated less critically or with greater reverence than those of any other citizen.

Neither the Pope nor the Queen receives the kind of homage now reserved for Frances Lawrence and the Dunblane parents. If the old forms of homage had their faults, the new are utterly corrupting. At least the Pope and the Queen operate within a world of rational norms. They have circles of experienced advisors and deliberate on the issues which affect their jurisdiction in a considered manner. Frances Lawrence and the Dunblane parents have no such constraints. They are answerable only to their own emotions. And those emotions have been turned upside down. Uncritical deference to the victims is actually far worse than the sort of deference once reserved for "great leaders" because it places blind emotion above reasoned debate. A society which accepted such standards could scarcely continue to function.

Finally the new deference is no good for the victim. At the very time when those around them should be doing everything to restore their sense of balance after a terrible experience, they are being told instead that everything they say is full of wisdom and truth. This can only lead to a further loss of proportion and sense of reality. Mrs Lawrence's imperious command "Today is a time for other people to speak. I have nothing further to say at the moment", sounded more like the words of an absolute monarch dismissing his subjects than of an unfortunate woman whose husband died in a stabbing incident. The authority given victims today also makes it all but impossible for them to ever overcome their grief since they derive all their social status from their trauma. Will the Dunblane parents still be known as the Dunblane parents in 30 years time? One hopes not. Mrs Lawrence, the Dunblane parents and all the other victims would be much better served by being left in peace, not put on a pedestal to be flattered and indulged.

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