Another candle in the wind

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The Independent Online
A child is lost and must be brought home safely. Other children as young as six are "campaigning" on her behalf, lighting candles, wearing yellow ribbons, hoping with all their little hearts that Louise can come home. "She's the light of our life," says The Sun, underneath a picture of "anxious youngsters". Much of the country appears to be involved in this giant rescue fantasy. We can save Louise Woodward. We can rescue her from a life in a petrifying American prison. We can teach the Americans a thing or two about justice.

The reality is that a child has been lost and can never be rescued. Matty Eappen is dead and cannot be brought back to life by any kind of public outcry. Yet dead babies, despite our supposed love of children, do not evoke that much public sympathy. They are not fully formed. They cannot speak up for themselves. They are at times intensely annoying and frustrating. The great unspoken truth, central to this whole sorry case, is that babies can invoke absolute feelings of love and of hate, of joy and of rage. It is not so difficult to imagine shaking a baby, dropping a baby, being too rough with a baby whether you are its paid carer or its parent. Yet babies are completely innocent aren't they? They do not know what they are doing. They cannot help themselves.

It seems to me that many of our complicated feelings about infants have been transferred on to Louise Woodward herself. She has become entirely infantilised through the media coverage of her trial. She may in fact be a rather sullen young woman but she is spoken of as a little girl lost. This is why she must be thought of by both sides as entirely innocent or entirely guilty.

Like many others I feel that Woodward should not serve 15 years in an American prison because she is not a danger to society. Yet I cannot believe that anyone involved in this case is completely innocent. The point is that she does not have to be completely innocent in order for us to think that the murder verdict is wrong.

Various suggestions have been made as to what would have got Louise off. She should have been prettier, blonder, more like a cheerleader, she should have been chattier, more tearful and shown more emotion. The howl of incomprehension she gave when found guilty was surely enough emotion for most. Indeed the extraordinary campaigns to have her released in this country and now in America, with their candles, flowers and the creation of instant communities of feeling are part of the new "politics of emotion" that was both rubbished and celebrated at the time of Diana's death.

The intensity of the reaction to Diana's death has left a kind of vacuum. Despite their sadness, many people felt somehow more alive than they had for some time, part of a collectivity that had for so long been denied. This was dismissed as hysteria by those for whom any public display of emotion is essentially inauthentic. I felt then and I still do that what was expressed was a genuine articulation of loss, that it was both sincere and sensational at the same time.

The candlelit vigils to free Louise Woodward are in some way connected to this post-Diana mood. "The cult of intimacy," which Christopher Lasch wrote of in The Culture of Narcissism, is in full swing. We have been encouraged to feel intimate enough with Woodward to call her only Louise. Unlike the vigils for Diana, these vigils are intended to make something happen. This is emotional activism of a new kind.

Just this morning another leaflet from Amnesty popped through my letterbox. It detailed yet again more stories of torture, of mutilation and cruelty so horrible that I could hardly bear to read it. Innocent people are imprisoned and maimed every day of the year and no one does much about it.

Woodward's case, however, brings together a number of concerns that obviously have huge emotional resonance - the issue of childcare, of who is actually responsible for children, the residual anti-Americanism of Britain, the TV drama of a real-life courtroom scenes, the clambering for victim status, the fate of the working woman, the Oprah-fication of all culture. Certainly the scenes in Elton, Woodward's village, of people crying and shouting and hugging each other reminds us that the image of the British as a cold and unemotional people has finally been laid to rest.

These people with their visible outrage understand that the visibility of emotions is a crucial aspect of this case. The new "politics of emotion", which Tony Blair surfs so expertly, means that emotion has to be seen to be shown rather than merely felt. There were a number of points in this case, in which this view was expressed. Deborah Eappen told us that Louise Woodward didn't look like a child abuser. Well, what do child abusers look like? The Eappens themselves, with their glazed American sentiments, were also said not to have shown enough grief. What does enough grief look like?

It is no coincidence that such strong feeling should surround this young British woman abroad and that it should involve children. The mood of the country, post-Diana, has been described as "feminised", in that we are all much more in touch with our emotions than before. Expressing one's feelings has become an end in itself. Yet expressing one's feelings is not the same as understanding them, as being emotionally literate to use the psychopolitical jargon. We have some way to go in this direction.

Our reaction to the Woodward case means that a huge amount of feeling is being expressed about an injustice that has been seen to be done. Unfortunately, though, the complicated feelings that this case forces to the surface have been pushed down in the overwhelmingly simplistic demand for Louise to be found "innocent". It is as if the ugly details of this case can all be tied up with a giant yellow ribbon, that come "judgment day", mercy will be shown, that a missing child will be returned safe and sound into the arms of loving parents. But it is already too late for that. A child has gone. Louise Woodward is not that child, however much we try and make her into it.

This case is full of "reasonable doubt". To replace it with passionate certainty is another kind of denial. In this new age of emotional openness, admitting that the lines between innocence and guilt are not always as clear as we want them to be is still difficult. So, too, is acknowledging that feeling is not the same as knowing and that there are times when, however much we might feel we know, the truth is that we actually don't.