Moral panic achieves nothing

Paranoia about paedophiles, communists, witches or space aliens should never cut us off from our rational selves
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The Independent Online

I have just come back from a trip to Guatemala, the Central American republic which has recently made an uneasy transition to democratic government after nearly four decades of civil war. As is often the case as a society tries to rebuild itself, violent crime is a big problem, especially kidnapping and armed robbery. But last month an especially horrible crime took place in Xalvaquiej, a village 100 miles north-west of Guatemala City: eight men were lynched by an angry mob which suspected them of being involved in the rape of a child. The men were captured at a roadblock, as they tried to escape from the village, and burnt alive. It was the latest in a series of lynchings in Guatemala, many of them prompted by rumours that children are being stolen to take part in Satanic rituals.

I have just come back from a trip to Guatemala, the Central American republic which has recently made an uneasy transition to democratic government after nearly four decades of civil war. As is often the case as a society tries to rebuild itself, violent crime is a big problem, especially kidnapping and armed robbery. But last month an especially horrible crime took place in Xalvaquiej, a village 100 miles north-west of Guatemala City: eight men were lynched by an angry mob which suspected them of being involved in the rape of a child. The men were captured at a roadblock, as they tried to escape from the village, and burnt alive. It was the latest in a series of lynchings in Guatemala, many of them prompted by rumours that children are being stolen to take part in Satanic rituals.

There were 41 lynchings last year and 50 in 1998, sometimes involving crowds of 50 people or more. Most of the victims were stoned or hacked to death with machetes, ferocious implements which made me shudder every time I saw them flashing in the hands of agricultural labourers in the long grass. Clearly, though, this is not an occasion when we who live in developed countries can make disapproving noises and insist that it could not happen here. The power of the mob is a terrifying phenomenon, which dictators the world over have exploited to their advantage; Hitler is said to have studied crowd psychology and his skilful manipulation of it was demonstrated at the Nuremberg rallies.

Most civilised societies go out of their way to prevent what are in effect outbreaks of mass hysteria but occasionally some irresponsible demagogue - the editor of a tabloid newspaper here in Britain, for instance - acts in a way that completely demolishes restraint in vulnerable individuals. Hysteria is characterised by infantile behaviour, in which the customary gap between feeling and action is perilously occluded; another aspect of it is known as hysterical identification, in which the sufferer confuses someone else's frightening experience with his or her own. According to the distinguished psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, this accounts for the outbreak of mass hysteria in girls' schools in the 1960s, when a polio epidemic affected their peers; it also accounts, I think, for the disgraceful behaviour of some of the residents of a Portsmouth housing estate last week.

The symptoms are clear enough, wherever they happen: rumour is elevated to the status of fact, righteous indignation overwhelms common sense, and summary justice is exercised. When the motive is child abuse, hysterical parents and teenagers congregate on the streets, encouraging each other's paranoid fantasies and claiming to have discovered yet more child-molesters in their midst. In effect, they are identifying themselves and their children with earlier victims, real or imagined, and behaving as though they too are faced with imminent destruction. Of course this is nonsense. But it is very dangerous nonsense, as we can see from the massacre in Xalvaquiej and the reckless destruction of property in British towns and cities in the last three weeks. The President of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, has made the classic error of announcing new laws to hasten prosecutions of suspects in cases of child abuse and kidnapping. This may have the short-term effect of appeasing the mob but also confers legitimacy on its most paranoid suspicions.

What is clear is that the people who take part in such disturbances are in the grip of a delusion. Their behaviour follows a standard pattern: a woman who rushes up to other mothers, gasping that she has just learnt the identity of another paedophile, is behaving exactly like the credulous 17th-century villagers who circulated rumours about elderly women turning milk sour or blighting crops. The historian Olwen Hufton estimates that between 1560 and 1660 about 100,000 supposed witches were condemned in Western Europe, 30,000 of them in Germany. These figures, as well as recent events, show that the impulse to identify new enemies is a constant in human behaviour, whether the target group happen to be witches, paedophiles, asylum seekers, communists or space aliens.

Our existence is precarious at the best of times and the unconscious sense of insecurity we all inherit is projected onto a wide variety of targets. That is why we are prone to panics about disease and infection, most recently embodied by wildly exaggerated predictions about the number of people likely to die from CJD - scaled down once again only last week - and the more extreme claims about the effects of GM food. Our response to these fears, whose aetiology we do not for the most part understand, is a standard but incoherent cry: something must be done. The consequences are almost always dreadful: the hounding of communists in the US, the murder of innocent people in Guatemala, the suicides of men accused of child abuse in Britain.

But there is a larger point here, which is that no matter how many steps the authorities take, short of electronically tagging an entire population, murders and other violent crimes will continue to happen. This is certainly not an argument for doing nothing, only to suggest that some of the people who are currently shouting loudest have unrealistic expectations about the degree of protection from harm that any of us can expect. Even the Princess of Wales, theoretically one of the most closely guarded celebrities in the world, died in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. The irony of witch hunts is that the people who are most eager to seize the moral high ground employ it as an excuse to indulge in violent disorder, thus turning themselves into criminals - the very people they affect to despise. Moral panics generally result in extremely immoral behaviour, and anyone who recklessly lets loose this phenomenon in a civilised society is as much to blame as the mob itself.

*****

On my flight home from Guatemala, I happened to come across a glossy advert for the anti-impotence drug Viagra in an American magazine. One side of the page consists of a photograph of a - how shall I put this? - mature couple smiling knowingly at each other, while the other contains the small print. This includes stern advice to seek hospital treatment if an erection lasts for more than four hours, although it does not offer tips on how to get there in this presumably uncomfortable condition.

But the most intriguing warning relates to the romantic dinner which may well, in some cases, be a prelude to ingestion of the wonder drug. If you fill yourself up with fatty foods, the manufacturer points out, you may find that the effects of Viagra are considerably delayed. This is a great discovery: fast food leads to slow sex. I always knew there was a good reason to avoid cheeseburgers and French fries.

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