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November 03, 2011

Theodore Dalrymple argues, why can The Guardian not see that murder is murder and that the nature of the victim does not make the crime any better or any worse?

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Even the greatest penological liberal has at least one type of crime that he wishes to punish severely and with exemplary zeal, however much he may decry the principle of punishment as retribution or deterrence. In the case of the Guardian newspaper, the crime that it most deprecates is that against favoured minorities, as if it were the minority status, and not the crime, that mattered most.

The murder of Stuart Walker, a homosexual barman in the town of Cumnock, in East Ayrshire, has aroused the newspaper's particular interest, and indeed it was of such startling brutality that the police have not released details of it. The murder was horrible: equally so whatever its motive, which so far is unknown.

The newspaper quoted a friend of the deceased, Emma Smith, as saying,

If it [the murder] turns out to be linked to him being gay, then I'll go absolutely mad. We can't still be having that sort of thing happening, not here, not in Cumnock, not in this day and age.
A person in the first stage of grief or despair may say things that do not bear close analysis, but Emma Smith's sentiments were in accord with the newspaper's own view of "hate crime", that is to say crime that is committed because of animus against a particular group of people who are deemed worthy or in need of special protection.

Although the details of the crime have not been released, we know that it was barbaric. Stuart Walker was tied to a lamp-post, beaten and set alight. What Emma Smith said was that "this sort of thing" (which was presumably done by more than one person), is unacceptable, if it is the result of special animus against homosexuals.

Unfortunately, the corollary of this statement is that "this sort of thing" is more acceptable, less terrible, if it is done for some other motive than animus against a certain category of person. Other motives for such crimes can easily be imagined: for example, a failure to pay drug debts. (Most British cities of any size have places where drug dealers torture their recalcitrant debtors.) Would punishment for debt make the crime any less horrible? Even were it to turn out that someone had a justified grudge against Stuart Walker, would the brutality of the crime be reduced by one jot or tittle?

It is instructive in this context to consider the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, pictures of which rightly horrified the world. Few people (except, perhaps, Mr Anthony Blair, for reasons that it would probably be libellous to mention) doubt that Gaddafi was a very bad man, in fact one of the very worst. He was a mass murderer and a torturer, at least by proxy, on an industrial scale. No man ever deserved punishment more than he, no man had fewer redeeming features. And yet the manner of his death was horrible. As Emma Smith might put it, we can't be having this sort of thing, not in this day and age.

Why not? It is surely not because Gaddafi was a member of a group in danger that is worthy of protection, namely dictators of North African countries (whether they have quite gone extinct remains to be seen), nor because he was a member of any other group that needs or deserves special protection. It is simply because he was treated as no man should be treated, and this irrespective of his own previous conduct. In other words, the sheer inhumanity of his death transcended other considerations, even if that inhumanity were not a bad augury.

Now let it be supposed, for the sake of argument, that Stuart Walker was not the kind of person that, immediately after his death, he was reported as having been, that is to say everyone's friend. Let us suppose, on the contrary, that he was a person of the most reprehensible character: could he have done or been anything that would have lessened the guilt of those who tied him to a lamp-post, beat and burned him? Would anything that he had done or been make the slightest difference to the gravity of the offence?

According to those who believe in the category of hate-crime, it would make a great deal of difference: the difference between "the sort of thing" that we can and can't have in this day and age. But this distinction, that is often presented as a triumph of sensitivity after centuries of prejudice or unfeeling, is moral retrogression rather than progress, in so far as it is an implicit, even if only partial, acceptance of the worst kind of behaviour.

Why some murders are selected for publicity and others are not is an interesting question; no doubt everyone uses dramatic and unusual events for his own moral purposes, to illustrate what he thinks needs illustrating (I have certainly done it). But many of the reports of murders nowadays are sure to include the "tributes" paid to the victim, as if the wickedness of murder depended upon the personal qualities of the victim, and to kill a person who had, say, a pleasant smile or who was handsome was far worse than to kill someone with a perpetual frown or who was ugly. The "tributes" to the victim often consist of a list of the most banal qualities that one would hope to find in many, if not most, people; but the very word "tribute" suggests something approaching a willing death or sacrifice for a cause by someone of more than usual worth.

The sentimentality exhibited by believers in hate-crime is a manifestation of the Leninist brutality of soul, according to which the only really important question in life is who does what to whom. The notion of hate-crime undermines the ideal (and I think is intended to undermine the ideal) of equality under the law, to the great advantage of political entrepreneurs, who see nothing in a polity or an economy but spoils to be divided in their clientele's, and therefore in their own, favour.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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In some countries, there is concern that the authorities may take the opposite line over hate crimes, and be more lenient to the perpetrators.

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Posted by: HedgehogFive at November 4, 2011 08:11 PM

I must disagree, The murder of a barman is the most horrible of crimes. In Glasgow a barman a week is murdered. They are performing a vital public service and must be protected They are a vulnerable minority who are at risk because they deal every day with violent drunks. Would any of us be willing to take on such a job?

Posted by: Aneurin Hughes-Davies at November 5, 2011 07:55 PM

I shudder to think I am disagreeing with Dr Daniels, but it seems to me that the distinction between murder and execution is being blurred. Granted, many courts might well hold the shooter of Gaddafi to be a murderer, but it wouldn't be hard to see how he considered himself his executioner. So, too, the failed bombers of Hitler seemed to be operating in a different moral space than those who murdered the barman. Certainly, Dr Daniels' point that we should not be grading murder by the measure of our sympathies (so too with illness) is well taken.

Posted by: Brian at November 22, 2011 01:31 PM
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