Friday, 20 March 2009

Oh please...

Yesterday, Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in a psychiatric institution. For those who have been spending the last year underneath a rock, in a cave in Antarctica, or on a space station, feel free to google. This post is not about him.

This post is about something I read here this morning.
The Times of London has seen fit to borrow a page from her tabloid cousins and achieved a hattrick of righteous preaching.

First of all, note the large picture at the top of the first article. If they had photoshopped it to include fangs and fiery red reptile eyes, and stamped "Monster!!!" across the man's face, the message couldn't have been more clear. The picture is the first thing we see, taking in the headline only afterwards.

And what a headline it is: "No plans for investigation into police and social service failings"
That combines willful ignorance of the fact that people have been asking those questions for almost a year, with the wonderfully enlightening powers of hindsight. Clearly, something went terribly wrong, here. Nobody is denying that. But saying that "it should have been obvious" or that "questions should have been asked", is a pretty cheap shot by itself, especially if it comes from such a completely safe distance.
Next, the author takes issue with the fact that there are no plans "for new laws such as a sex offenders list". This assumes that reactive legislature is always a good idea, which I'm not so sure about, and that sex offenders lists are effective, which, again, I'm not entirely sure about. But they are flashy and high profile, playing as they do on both the public's fears and the need to *see* the authorities take decisive action. Anyway, the rationale for bringing up a sex offenders register in the context of this particular case eludes me. A previous rape conviction does not automatically mean that the man was bound to turn on his own daughter or her children next. And what was the register supposed to accomplish? Ban the man from having any contact with his children and grandchildren? On what grounds?

Later on comes the following gem regarding Elisabeth's testimony:
"That was the decisive moment in one of Europe’s most extraordinary trials – Elisabeth the martyr had become an avenging angel."
Maybe, just maybe, she will eventually even become Elisabeth the human being. But I'm not holding my breath.

On to the second headline, another one for the ages: "Josef Fritzl: Austria locks up a monster and shuts its problems away"

And here we go:
"It seems like closure for a country that has worried more about its tarnished image than about the alarming deficiencies that the case has exposed in society, in its welfare and judicial systems, even in its attitude to manhood."

Here it comes - sweeping judgement about the entire society of phony under-the-rug-sweepers. Cue the Kampusch-reminders, and hey presto, we're back to the tried and tested narrative of Austrian denialism. This is not to say that this denialism doesn't exist, on the contrary, we're even better at that than we are at skiing. Rather, this is to say that people whose understanding is superficial at best, from societies with their own issues and horror stories (Jersey, anyone? Soham?) set my teeth on edge with that kind of sanctimonious tone. I was actually waiting for the Hitler allusion at that point, but it didn't come. Small mercies.
"That is how Austria wants to see this man: as a once-in-a-century freak, a devilish criminal who has no bearing on the rest of the country."

Because isolating a country as the only place where such things could happen is a far more reasonable thing to do.

And then, there's this: "Josef Fritzl: Austria must examine itself"
Yes, do you hear that, my fellow countrypeople? We must. Mummy told us so.
"The trial of Josef Fritzl has only answered the question of his guilt or innocence. More urgent questions for his country have been left cloaked in shame an silence."

First, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the evocative, almost poetic language of this subtitle. "Cloaked in shame and silence" - beautiful. Entirely free of fact or even actual content, but definitely beautiful.

Here, the author complains about the fact that the trial lasted only three and a half days. Why? We've all seen the evidence, Fritzl had confessed and entered a guilty plea, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. What else was there to be done? Should the family been put on the stand, in front of cameras, for a couple of days worth of cross-examination each? Should there have been reenactments?

Then, this author contradicts her colleague in a sudden attack of reason -
"And it serves no useful purpose to generalise about a nation or culture on the basis of an aberration. More particularly, legislation designed to ensure that no such crimes could be committed again, even behind the locked doors of private homes, would be intolerably intrusive for any free society."

- just to follow up with a swipe about how Austria isn't really trying all that hard to come to terms with what happened. Look! It's our old friend denialism!
"What it needs is answers; answers to questions that go to the heart of Austria's national character even if the original case does not; answers to questions that, for the most part, have not yet been asked."

This thrilling insight is followed by what I assume are meant to be those hard questions, except that they really aren't all that hard, if you know the meaning of the word hindsight. The author also kindly provides the answers to those hard questions herself.
For example, social services visited the house several times...
"but never reported any anxieties about the “upstairs” children or a father who later told his court-appointed psychiatrist that he was “born to rape”. Why not?"
Leaving aside the obvious solution already contained in the sentence (I give you a hint, though, - "later"), I'll say it was because the "Born2rape"-shirt was always in the wash when socialworkers came to visit.

The article poses several more of those hard questions and follows up with a chaser of victim blaming about Fritzl's wife, Rosemarie.
But in the end, we're back at the beginning:
"As Fritzl begins his sentence in a secure psychiatric hospital, Austria must ask itself the tough questions that were not asked at his trial. Among the most fundamental is whether a culture of cronyism and secrecy has shielded incompetent police and social services from urgently needed reform. On the evidence of the Kampusch and Fritzl cases, the answer is yes. And that means, sooner or later, that it will happen again."

And this is where my real problem lies. The tone is wrong, wrong, wrong. And so are the questions.
Of course there are questions that have to be asked, and measures that have to be taken. But this needs to be done by people who understand the context.
What the Times fails to take into account is that this crime took place in a country that regards itself, crime-wise, as an island of blessed innocence. Women walk home in the dark, children walk to school on their own, and ten years ago people outside the major cities didn't lock their doors, because people knew each other and nothing ever happened. Suspecting horror in such a context would have been as absurd as suspecting horror on "The Waltons". It wouldn't have occurred to people.
As I said, questions have to be asked, and measures have to be taken. But righteous wanks from a safe distance are not helpful.


  1. Got nothing much to add, except to emphasise your point: "this crime took place in a country that regards itself, crime-wise, as an island of blessed innocence."

    I think you're hitting very close to home here. I just read a book by Thomas Müller (criminal psychologist/crime scene analyst, who says that he's not a profiler, but is a little bit). Anyhoo, he describes various crimes which happened in Austria - most of them sexual and/or murders. And I caught myself more than once not believing that this happened here and that people never talk about these things etc. Like Austria hasn't seen a crime since WW II. Kind of disturbing, when you think about it.

  2. I don't know.
    Personally, I like that better than that culture of fear that's being cultivated in the UK or the US. Don't let your children talk to strangers. Don't let your children out of your sight for a second. Don't allow your children to trust anybody, because the world is full of rapists and murderers waiting for their opportunity to strike...

    Intellectually, I recognize that there has to be some sort of a middle-ground...a sane compromise between whitewashing and hysteria. But that's going to take a lot of hard work and I don't have the faintest idea where to start.