Cometh the hour, cometh the brute

Only a thin line divides the popular hero from the reviled villain `Sometimes a man is admired explicitly for committing crimes'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
What you do to become a public villain may resemble, in summary, what you do to become a public hero. A man kills a man. A man kills a woman. A woman kills a man. A man kills a large number of men, women and children. In each case we can think of examples where the grammatical subject of these sentences has been thought a hero.

A man kills a large number of men, women and children, but these victims are the enemy and, besides, they are gooks and Communists, and the man in question was serving his country and under orders. This is Vietnam, this is My Lai, this propels the soldier hero into the pop charts with a song about duty.

Or again: a man gets together a large number of men, women and children, and lets them know they are about to die. This man (a villain to the rest of the world) becomes more than a hero - he becomes a god to the members of his cult. And it may be that the members of the cult know they are only about to die because the cult leader has somehow engineered that outcome. At the unconscious level, this may be what they joined the cult to achieve: a mass suicide. This may be the story of the Branch Davidians.

In some cases, popular culture is such that a man is admired explicitly for what the law would term crimes. The Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan (real name Zeljko Razmatovic) is, I would submit, admired in Belgrade because of his reputation for ruthlessness, and because of his being wanted in the Hague for war crimes and by Interpol for bankrobbery and murder. I read a report which said that unpalatable facts about Arkan are "glossed over". But I am not sure this is the right term. It hardly seems the facts are unpalatable. Arkan's second wife fled Belgrade saying to an editor that if anything happened to her it would be Arkan's fault. The editor did not risk the story, but it might well be that in popular opinion Arkan would have every right to dispose of his wife if she somehow failed to shape up.

Times are tough in Serbia - the reasoning would run - and we need brutes like Arkan who are prepared to do what lesser men would find unpalatable. Cometh the hour, cometh the brute. And of course the thing about the women who marry these brutes - the same reasoning would run - is that if they cannot put up with the "unpalatable" side of their husbands, they really should not have got themselves into such a position. They "knew the score" all along. They should take the rough with the smooth.

So what we arrive at is a state of popular, public complicity with Arkan. You might think that, considering the difficult circumstances in Belgrade, his forthcoming expenses of £200,000 for his third wedding might be judged excessive. Not at all. In the context of a monarchy the sum might be thought excessive (our own monarchy had to be tactful about expenditure during the Second World War), but in the context of an official public brute it is not thought excessive. This and the young pop-singer wife are no less than Arkan deserves.

Of course, it might be that Arkan's former wife, when phoning a Belgrade editor to make her allegations, was in fact much to blame for any violence there had been in their marriage. In this case she would resemble Tracie Bechke of Cleveland, Ohio, who wrote to OJ Simpson (facing trial for the murder of his former wife and her lover) to say: "When I was married, my husband and I had a very similar relationship. I said a lot of the same things to the police that Nicole did. But what I didn't confess, and I believe it is the same in your situation, is that I was much to blame for the disturbance. Calling the police was my way of getting control." Hero-worship, in this case, has provoked this woman to write a fan letter in which she almost casts herself asthe villain in the affair.

Before the murders took place, there is no doubt that OJ's fans consisted mainly of people who believed in his image of clean success. Now one has to subdivide them into: (a) people who are really and truly able to believe a man innocent until proved guilty, were fans before and are now keeping an open mind; (b) people who passionately believe in his innocence; and (c) people for whom, though they believe him guilty, he remains a hero.

These last would include people who feel obscurely that men have an ancient right to "put their wives away", people who think that murder is nothing in comparison with good looks and a glamorous lifestyle (indeed, that it is part of the lifestyle, as it so often is on junk television), and perhaps a group just enthralled with the thought that there are those who get away with this kind of thing. Such people would want OJ both guilty and free.

Lisa Miranda wrote that she was a 12-year-old fan and did not think he had killed Nicole or Ronald, but "even if you did, I would still be your fan and so would my Mom because everyone makes mistakes". About this childish reasoning OJ commented: "This kid's heart is in the right place." He might more strikingly have said: "This kid's heart is in the wrong place."

He does, however, go on: "But it is wrong to say: `Even if you did it, I would still be your fan'; and it disturbs me that a kid would write about any kind of killing." What disturbs me is that the child already appears to have been given the support of Mom: OJ is a hero and we need his kind; they must be allowed to make their mistakes.

It is in the course of these controversies that we get a vivid glimpse of the unpalatable side of our various cultures - not just popular cultures, aristocratic ones as well. Remember that, to the circle around Lord Lucan, what seemed worst was not the killing of the nanny in mistake for Lady Lucan, but the behaviour of a member of the circle who was believed to have blabbed to the press.

In the case of Private Lee Clegg we get glimpses of three aspects of our culture. There is the culture of the regiment itself, and of the soldier who constructed a cardboard mock-up of the bullet-ridden car - who made, that is, a trophy out of the killing. This is the culture of soldiers who called themselves "scroties" - they were the guys with balls. Then there is the vivid appearance on the scene of gentlemen so distinguished we normally do not hear their names, ready to make a stand on behalf of theimprisoned soldier. And, finally, there is the popular response in all its complexity.

I do not think I have ever seen a campaign more clearly set to prosper, or a more firm statement by the military that this cannot stand, whatever the judiciary has to say about the matter. Private Clegg already has his celebrity. The culture will see that he soon has his freedom, too.