Self defence? But only when the mob rules

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The Independent Online

It was, basically, Murder on the Orient Express at 30,000 feet - a killing in which everyone was guilty but everyone was innocent.

It was, basically, Murder on the Orient Express at 30,000 feet - a killing in which everyone was guilty but everyone was innocent.

On a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Salt Lake City, 20 minutes before the plane was due to land, a teenage passenger called Jonathan Burton, in the grip of a mild dose of cannabis resin, went berserk. He started to lash out at other passengers, then headed for the door of the flight deck. He never made it. In the first recorded incident of its kind, he was brought down by eight other passengers, who proceeded to punch, kick and throttle him. He was carried off the plane at Salt Lake City and pronounced dead. Death by suffocation, they said.

Had it been death by strangulation, now that would have been different. That would have implied a murderer who had put his hands around Mr Burton's windpipe and squeezed the life out of him. Suffocation implies death by crushing, as if too many people sitting on the young man's head had done for him inadvertently. An unfortunate side-effect of physical restraint. A regrettable accident.

Burton's family have hired a lawyer to sue the passengers and airline over their son's death, hoping to show it was murder, manslaughter or unlawful killing. The US Attorney's office, meanwhile, has refused to bring any charges against the passengers because (the attorney ruled) what they did was done in self-defence.

Self-defence? It wasn't that each passenger was defending himself or herself against a lethal assault; they were all responding to a vague threat of mortal danger to them all, had the 19-year-old actually made it to the cabin door, broken into the cockpit, started a fight, disabled the three crew members, wrenched the wheel from their grasp, disconnected the automatic pilot and flown the plane into the Arizona desert.

Air rage is a nasty business. You can try to laugh off such incidents as the "Virginia Twelve", whose flight to Montego Bay was aborted two years ago. But having a stoned and violent passenger go ballistic in front of you and announce his intention of seizing the controls of the plane is a far cry from having to endure a dozen Anglo-Irish tinkers from Lewisham singing "The Fields of Athenry". Anyone could be forgiven for wishing a straitjacket would drop from the ceiling and immobilise the bastard. But when death is the result of the public's intervention, you have to feel slightly concerned about what message of corporate irresponsibility is being sent to other would-be vigilantes.

It will be trains next. I once sat on the 9.03 to Cheltenham and watched as a whole carriage of mild-mannered suits (and myself) gradually ganged up on a loud-voiced Welshman on a mobile phone. As he chatted to his friend ("I'LL MEET YOU ON THE PLATFORM. HOW WILL YOU KNOW ME? WELL...") we began to yell back at him ("YOU'LL BE THE ONE DOING THE SHOUTING"). The mood soon turned ugly as he shouldered his way through us to the bar. We would happily have decked him. We could have claimed self-defence, as he was in danger of disrupting the train by enraging all the passengers.

It will be a football match next ("We had to sit on him, 40 of us, because he was threatening to disrupt the equilibrium of the Shed by supporting Newcastle"). Then a rock concert ("He was climbing over the heads of the crowd shouting, 'Britney!'; so, fearing that he might be a stalker, we had to waste him"). Then a housing estate, an army platoon, a funfair... As any psychologist will tell you, expressions of group feeling are always more capricious and whim-driven than individual impulses. Allowing the excuse of generalised self-defence to absolve extremes of behaviour is a dangerous precedent indeed.