Howard Jacobson: There is nothing petty about the crime that led to Fiona Pilkington's death

This brutality is the consequence of our failure to teach mutuality and respect

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Some events lay bare the soul of a nation or, even more, the soul of the times. So this is where we are, we say, and this is what we have come to. And what we have come to is so distressing in its ignobility that we would walk out if we could, wash our hands of the whole business of trying to stay human in a society that has, now by overt deliberation, now by stealth, made life a living hell for those of its citizens who cannot afford to live walled off from it.

Fiona Pilkington setting fire to herself and her disabled daughter in a lay-by because she could no longer bear the violent tauntings of her neighbours – their threats, their obscenities, their gross malevolence, enacted day after day, night after night, without fear of punishment or reprisal – breaks our hearts because of its sheer hopeless desolation. A lay-by! Lives lived in such a heartless landscape ended in flames in a lay-by! What a tale of urban horror this is.

The same photograph of Fiona Pilkington in a would-be jaunty white hat, flowers at her throat, her eyes downcast, her mouth not quite managing a smile, has appeared in every newspaper. It's one of those photographs. It tells you what it is like – what it was like – to be her. A woman, already worn down by family tragedy, having to undergo the daily torments of a brutalised and brutalising community, and not a hand lifted to help her. This, reader, in a country that is so riddled with social interference that when one mother looks after another's baby for more than two hours in a day she is visited by Ofsted and told she has broken the law.

Ofsted? What's Ofsted when it's at home? The Office for Standards in Education. Ah yes, we know how well they're doing. But never mind that standards in education are not lowered, and if anything might well be highered, by two mothers caring for each other's children – what business of Ofsted's is child-minding at all? And where was it, since it casts its net so widely, when it came to the needs of Fiona Pilkington's disabled children?

We know in our bones that anything that calls itself Ofsted is doomed to futile and unfeeling officiousness. Ofanythings are never more than an excuse for interfering where they're not needed and for looking away where they are. Dickens had it right. The Circumlocution Office covers them all. Come up with an organisation called Ofthug or Ofbastard and I'll think again.

Except, of course, that we can't call thugs thugs any more. That's something else we hear every time an officer from Ofsomething comes to call: the political pretending, the attitudinal correctness, in which spirit of utterly misdirected social disapprobation mothers cannot look after each other's babies without a licence, a schoolteacher cannot put an arm around a pupil's shoulder, and we cannot make a joke about a Welshman, but armed abusive savages can with impunity roam the streets.

Here is another reason the Fiona Pilkington tragedy has grabbed us by the throat – we have seen it coming, if not to her to someone else, to a thousand Fiona Pilkingtons living in a thousand similar estates. Seen it coming and are damned if we know how to stop it happening again. In a trenchant and impassioned article published in this newspaper last week, Mary Dejevsky ascribed police inactivity to the downgrading of the sort of criminality to which Fiona Pilkington was subjected as "low-level nuisance". "By separating persistent petty crime from 'real' crime," she argued, "the Government has invited the police to treat it differently." Hence, in her view, the comic status of the Asbo, a badge now worn with ironic pride by those who have had one slapped on them. In other words, our whole vocabulary of crime and punishment has been diluted to the point where it is only when someone is murdered or takes her life in desperation that the police bother to leave the station and we bother to take notice.

I wouldn't blame the Government only for this. It is where we have been heading in our social thinking for a long time. Forgive me if I risk a little Blimpishness, but when liberalism leads to a distraught woman immolating herself in a lay-by, liberalism has lost its right to an opinion. What we all know, but don't want to say because we don't like how saying it makes us sound, is that the coarseness and brutality that drove Fiona Pilkington to her death is – let us say no more than "to a significant degree" – the consequence of our failure to teach mutuality and respect, and where those are wanting, to instil fear. You might once or twice play postman's knock on a vulnerable family's front door, and you might even, to win the applause of your friends, say something unkind to a person who looks different from you, but you won't do any more than that if you have been taught about rudeness and cruelty and, where that lesson has not been learnt, if you go in terror of your elders – ideally parents, but failing those a headmaster or a policeman, and failing those a judge who isn't himself afraid.

It is a fine, civilising idea that sweet words, and on occasions the naughty-step, will make gentlefolk of us all. And where it works, I applaud it. But in my experience it succeeds only where there is already laid down a clear structure of deference and obligation, or what child psychologists call boundaries. It is not a boundary when you think you can read your human rights to someone twice your age. It is not a boundary when aged 11 and with a knife between your teeth you think you have a human right at all. And it is not a boundary when, because of you, others cannot live in peace in their own house.

We have seen this coming, I say, and we have cleared the path for its coming, every time a person who roughly apprehends a thug, or kicks a burglar down his stairs, or clips a marauding schoolboy round his ear is treated as though he's the wrongdoer.

There is something deeply disturbed about a society that cannot call a brute a brute. And if you think the disturbance is all on the side of those who will not understand what makes a brute a brute, then you tell me how you're going to save the next Fiona Pilkington from the lonely hell of a burning car in a lay-by on the road from somewhere vile to somewhere even viler.

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