In those bygone days when Raoul Moat's peculiarly dissonant name first landed in the national consciousness, it belonged to a just-released felon wanted for a double-shooting – a serious baddie by any definition. When this same Moat shot a policeman on duty at a roundabout, he was dispatched straight to that special hall of infamy that the British reserve for those who kill or maim police officers. And there he remained until... Well, it is hard to fix exactly when the mood changed.
For me, it was about four days into the police pursuit: after they had brought in the 4x4s from Northern Ireland, started consulting survival specialists and arrested several people for assisting him. At that point, Moat passed almost imperceptibly from one most-wanted category to another; from that of hardened criminal to be shot on sight to that of victim and renegade – a delightful word heard all too rarely today.
He was ugly, a steroid-user, and, yes, a killer. But deep down, I was rooting for him. He had defied the odds, cocked a snook at authority and evaded the growing army marshalled against him. Two mornings running, I awoke, fully expecting him to have been caught overnight, only to learn rather too cheerfully that he was still on the run. When he died under the arc lights, in circumstances that still have to be elucidated, it was hard not to share a little of his brother's fury against this "public execution". Whether in the end it was suicide or killing, as he cowered there in the dark and the pouring rain, Moat was cornered like an animal; he didn't stand a chance.
Now I rather suspect that David Cameron well understands how quickly and thoroughly Moat completed the transition, in many British minds, from mad dog to underdog. His feel for the public mood has generally served him well. I also suspect that, asked a question in the House of Commons about the lavish mourning for Moat on Facebook, he felt he had little choice but to remember he was Prime Minister, rise to his full height, and deliver the denunciation he did.
Moat was an ex-convict. The first thing he did when he left prison was to track down his ex-girlfriend and shoot her and her new partner. The next thing he did was to shoot a policeman. There is such a thing as law and order, and as Prime Minister, David Cameron is one of its chief guardians. That is his duty.
Yet, even before Moat died, the context of his shooting spree cast him in a slightly different light. This did not make his actions better or worse, but it did make them more comprehensible. He was no random killer – not at the outset, anyway – but a man with profound personal grudges bent on vengeance. Most people have an inkling of what that means; they presumed cause and effect. And as more and more details have seeped out, it has become apparent that the stand-off on the sodden riverbank was the last act in a long drama in which complicated family relationships, the social services and the local police all made their entrances and exits.
Which is why, if Mr Cameron really was shocked, and only shocked, by the posthumous tributes to Moat – the pile of flowers at the site of his death, the bouquets left outside the house where he used to live, and the expressions of sympathy and support on Facebook – he risks missing some important messages about public sentiment and the nature of the country whose government he now heads. Many of these, to be sure, reflect a world very different from that inhabited by the Prime Minister and his peers, but they spill far beyond Raoul Moat's stamping ground on the wrong side of the tracks.
Take the police. There is a shared sense of outrage when officers are killed or injured doing their duty. But you do not have to belong to a criminal underworld to harbour misgivings about aspects of modern policing, such as the lack (until very recently) of officers visibly on the beat, the way whole estates are felt to have been abandoned to gangs, and overzealous policing of public protests. How many householders have not vented frustration at the way burglary is tossed off as trivial by boneheaded officers too idle to do anything. At the other end of the spectrum is "stop and search" and Moat's sense, after being arrested 12 times, that the police were out to get him.
Fairness is an overused word these days, but most Britons have a highly developed sense of what it means and, in this case, the feeling grew that the police operation lacked proportion. This may be a false impression, built on the sight of so many armed officers in one place at one time in pursuit of one man. But I doubt that any police force will willingly repeat it, and certainly not in public.
Nor should the personal angle be ignored. In his own words, Moat comes across as desperate and bereft – though he had friends who risked prison to help him. He wrote of not having a father and losing everyone and everything he valued. Obsessively, he taped conversations, which included a plea for psychiatric help. Difficult and troubled he may have been, but – and perhaps men have a harder time here – he felt he had been let down by many public services. Are there lessons to be drawn for social services from the way this son of a broken family perceived his plight?
But there are also positive messages from the tributes to Moat, and they should not be ignored, just because the beneficiary committed murder. There is a strand of very basic human sympathy running through them that accurately reflects this country's better nature. More than 40,000 people have posted comments, the majority of them, in one way or another, favourable.
This is in part because people like an outlaw; it is not only in Britain that fugitives from justice have an honoured place in popular lore. But it is also because, to judge by their comments, there are many who genuinely feel that the odds, in the way society is organised today, are stacked against them, as – they sense – they were stacked against Moat. Social media, such as Facebook, have, perhaps for the first time, given such sentiments a voice. Mr Cameron and his ministers may, for propriety's sake, condemn them, but they would be wasting an opportunity if they did not read at least a sample of the tributes – and take note.Reuse content