Piles of filling station bought flowers mouldering in a heap, attached to each one a card professing love and admiration for someone the people who laid the flowers have never met, it’s raining and the writing on the cards is starting to run. This could be outside Kensington Palace in the summer of 1997 or just about anywhere in the wake of a newsworthy tragedy at any time since.
In fact the tributes turning into mulch on the municipal grass are lying on a riverbank in the Northumbrian town of Rothbury and have been laid in honour of Raoul Moat, a low rent thug turned celebrity murderer.
It feels like taking a dose of cod liver oil served up on an oversize silver spoon but I find myself agreeing with David Cameron when he said at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday of this week: ‘I cannot understand any wave, however small, of sympathy for this man.’ Like Mr Cameron and most other people I am able to see Moat for what he was ‘a callous murderer, full stop, end of story.’
The trouble is that for a large section of the population the full stop Moat’s miserable life came to last Friday night is part of a different and very disturbing story. One that paints him as a heroic rebel and was celebrated by a Facebook page with 35,000 members, most of whom left illiterate comments supporting Moat for standing up to the authorities.
The page has since been deleted but not before a spokeswoman for Facebook had piously told the press that since the site encourages discussion of issues in the media: ‘we sometimes find people discussing topics others may find distasteful, however that in itself is not a reason to stop a debate from happening.’ Thank you for clearing that up, I know how free speech works, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about just what some people use their freedom to speak about.
Ok granting the status of ‘legend’ to men like Raoul Moat is nothing new, in the eighteenth century huge crowds turned out to cheer highwaymen to the gallows and people sang ballads about their crimes that turned them into decaffeinated romantic heroes for people who had never heard of romanticism. Later cinema audiences thrilled to the gun toting antics of screen gangsters such as James Cagney and Edward G Robinson.
The difference between those instances and what we’re seeing here is that an integral part of the myth of the highwayman or the gangster was that sooner or later they faced the consequences of their actions, be that at the end of a rope or lying on the steps of a church as their moll tells a stone faced cop that they ‘used to be a somebody.’ Lionizing a criminal is silly but harmless subversion so long as it is framed by an understanding that in real life people have to be answerable for their actions, when that breaks down things turn deadly.
Yes Moat had his problems, someone should have listened to his pleas for psychiatric help, the police were guilty of some degree of grandstanding during the week it took to corner him; but this can never excuse what he did.
Even though most people in Britain didn’t write messages of support to Raoul Moat on Facebook or lay flowers at the shrine erected in his honour we should all share some of the blame for his being turned into a hero in the first place, not least because we have all conspired in turning the notion of heroism from a Homeric ideal into a label applied to inept footballers, self indulgent celebrities and now violently dysfunctional thugs.
If the lionization of a man like Raoul Moat is really the sort of ‘legend’ our society wants to tell itself at the start of the twenty first century; then we’ve got serious problems.