Joan Smith: From prankster to pervert overnight

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The Independent Online

It is often said that drowning people see the events of their lives flash by before the waves close over their heads. Something similar must have happened last week to Jonathan King – "this evil pervert" as he must now be known – as his long career in showbiz was revisited by the press in minute detail.

King had just been convicted of sex offences against five boys and metamorphosed overnight from a harmless eccentric into a predator with a sordid secret existence. All those pictures of him in Afro wigs and silly suits suddenly took on a sinister hue, exposing his perpetually inane grin as the public face of an unrepentant paedophile.

Detectives investigating his past believe he may have carried out hundreds of assaults, luring schoolboys into his Rolls Royce on the pretence of doing "market research". In some cases, he even invited them to his house with the knowledge of their parents and drove them home afterwards. Many people asked after his conviction how he got away with it for so long, and why so many friends gave character references on his behalf, even when they knew the gravity of the charges against him. In that sense, the case is a testament to the mind-numbing effect of celebrity. Any man who drives around in a flash car, approaching schoolboys with an amateurish handwritten questionnaire, could reasonably expect to find himself taking part in a survey conducted by the local constabulary.

But the contemporary reverence towards fame provides a worrying degree of protection for paedophiles and rapists. When the boxer Mike Tyson lured a star-struck fan to his hotel room and raped her, some of his fans simply refused to believe he was guilty, an indulgence that is unlikely to be extended to King in view of the evidence presented at his trial. On the contrary, the fact that he does not fit the popular stereotype of a sex offender will almost certainly make things harder for him. When parents warn their children about "stranger danger", what they have in mind tends to be a loner in a grubby mac, living in a scruffy flat, not a wealthy record producer. King's crimes have prompted not just revulsion but a feeling that he should pay for taking everyone in so successfully.

Yet it is hard to look back and say he was ever exactly a normal human being. Much of his life seems to have been devoted to being photographed with other famous people, and attention-seeking on this scale is not usually a sign of a mature personality. King's declarations about relationships on his website – "Nothing too close, thank God. No appalling wives or children" – suggest a pretty inflated ego, as does his behaviour last week. Few newly convicted prisoners are in a state to compose a letter to a national newspaper from Belmarsh prison, complaining about the legal system, and his experience in the cells is likely to exacerbate his sense of grievance, no matter how fantastic it seems to the rest of us.

This is not to argue that he should not be punished, but it is to ask questions about the mental state of paedophiles and the most effective way of persuading them to recognise the terrible damage their behaviour has inflicted. King will be in his sixties when he gets out of prison, and too notorious to offend again, but this is not always the case with men who abuse children. They are placed on the sex offenders' register but the system is neither foolproof nor untouched by popular prejudice.

There was a great deal of comment last week about King's background, as though a public school education and a Cambridge degree inoculate men against a tendency to commit sex offences. This may say something about the way last year's paedophile witch hunt has reinforced our unconscious assumptions that child-abusers will turn out to be working-class misfits, but it is dangerous nonsense. Here is one paedophile who has a posh accent, a string of successful hits, and a photograph of himself at 10 Downing Street with Baroness Thatcher.

How to promote anthrax and get away with it

The inhabitants of Salt Lake City must have been awfully relieved last weekend. I mean, a would-be terrorist turned up on their doorstep, armed with a manual on germ warfare, and not a single bomb fell on the city. Presumably President Bush was too busy posing for pictures with a turkey – no jokes, please, about which was which – to notice that Timothy Tobiason was flogging copies of his guide to delivering anthrax at a gun fair in Utah. Experts who have examined the volume say his methods are crude but would certainly work. You could use them, Tobiason claims cheerfully, to wipe out whole cities. "Enjoy!" he urges on the cover.

Don't you just hate people telling you to "enjoy" when they're talking about infecting people with a potentially fatal disease? Tobiason says his next book will explain how to produce "huge scale" biological weapons, which is hardly comforting news in a week when a fifth person died of anthrax in the United States. So has he been arrested by the FBI? Apparently not. Islamic terrorists are one thing, and homegrown fruitcakes from Nebraska quite another.

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One of the saddest stories of the week concerned an elderly lion in Kabul Zoo. The beast, inevitably dubbed the Lion of Kabul, was blinded a few years ago when a man lobbed a grenade into its cage after the creature had killed his brother. Along with the other animals in the menagerie, the lion appeared to be in a generally sorry condition and the World Society for the Protection of Animals is sending thousands of pounds to relieve their plight.

Something similar happened during the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, underlining the vulnerability of wild beasts when they are subject to this form of incarceration. (Although zoos are not the only cause of imprisonment: Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's assassinated tourism minister, kept a lion as his mascot when he was chief of the army's central command, the kind of stupid macho gesture that makes life unbearable for big cats.)

Zoos are sad places at the best of times, as I was reminded in the summer when I encountered a miserable- looking lion in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. I've no idea what became of the creature, but the best thing that could happen to the Lion of Kabul is to spend the rest of his days in peace. Animals should not be a symbol of national pride or a target for any country's warring factions.

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