Maureen Freely: A witness reflects on a killer's mind. Mad or bad?

'I could have died, but I didn't. I had two Martinis while just outside the window people were dying'

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So here it is. The picture of the man who almost killed me. He stares into the middle distance without affect. There is nothing about his face, his hair, or his expression that marks him out. This may or may not explain why I can look at his picture and feel as little about him as he felt for his victims. If I had to stand next to him in a crowded tube train for an hour, and someone asked me to describe him five minutes later, my guess is that I would remember nothing about him at all.

So here it is. The picture of the man who almost killed me. He stares into the middle distance without affect. There is nothing about his face, his hair, or his expression that marks him out. This may or may not explain why I can look at his picture and feel as little about him as he felt for his victims. If I had to stand next to him in a crowded tube train for an hour, and someone asked me to describe him five minutes later, my guess is that I would remember nothing about him at all.

When he walked into the Admiral Duncan on 30 April last year, I was standing just across the street. Or rather, now that I've put all the times together, I'm pretty sure I must have been. Pretty sure, but not positive. Although my "before" memory of Old Compton Street is as vivid and as detailed as my "after" memory, I have no recollection of seeing a totally unremarkable man in a baseball cap. God only knows, there were plenty of better things to look at. I was on my way to a party with a friend, but the party in the street at that moment seemed much more tempting. I almost suggested that we stop and have a drink there first.

Then, for reasons I cannot remember, I saved our lives by deciding to keep walking.

The party was around the corner, on the first floor of the annexe of the Groucho Club. The room looked out on to Dean Street. Because of the fine weather the windows were open, and I was standing right next to one with my first glass of wine when the bomb went off. I knew at once that it was a bomb. When a bomb goes off near you, you feel it more than hear it. There is a punch in the air and a heavy crunch.

However, most people in the room refused to believe that there'd been a bomb. One even thought I'd said bum instead of bomb. To make myself clear, I'd actually had to spell the word out. My own response mechanisms weren't working that much better, though. When (at the request of a newspaper for which I was now suddenly working) I ran out into the smoke-filled street, which was strewn with inert bodies and limping, crawling, crouching survivors, my first thought was, why is it so dark? What happened to the warm spring evening? When I saw two men struggling to hold up an unconscious friend, I wondered first why he was wearing no shirt, and second why his torso was so sunburned, and only then did I ask myself where his legs were.

What I ought to have done, what I could have done had I had my wits about me, was take out ice for the burn victims. Had I had more time to think, would I have done so? As it was, I had no time to think because by now the police had arrived in force and were pushing us back into our bars and clubs and cafes.

We were ordered to keep away from the windows in the event of a second bomb, but I did go, and often, and this is on my conscience, too: not only did I fail to bring ice out to the victims, but then I stared at them. So this is how I replay that evening when I wake up in the middle of the night and it all comes back to me. First I sneak to the window to watch the stretchers passing along Old Compton Street, and the line of wounded men propped up against the walls of Dean Street, each one tended to by a luckier friend. Then I hear a peal of laughter behind me. I turn around to see a man standing on a chair to propose a toast. And because the toast is for one of my friends, and because the party upstairs had been in her honour, I join in.

So yes, I have good reasons not to want to think about the Old Compton Street bombing. I could have died in it, but I survived. I could have taken out ice, but I didn't. I had two martinis, straight up, with twists, while just outside the window, people were dying. When I opened the paper the next day to see the horrific images captured by a photographer who just happened to be across the street when it happened, I felt as much shame for him as I did for myself. What was it that made him decide not to help, and reach for the camera instead?

If your first and only view of a catastrophe is the picture itself, the photographer's take on events becomes your take on events. And so you can look at the pictures, first of the carnage, and then, later, of the man who has been found guilty of causing the carnage, and you can feel revulsion and then go to bed with a clear conscience.

As, I hope, can Gary Reid. He lost a leg in the bomb. Like many other victims, he attended the trial. He said afterwards that he felt "a deep sense of relief and gratitude" at the verdict, and believed justice to have been done. He went on to express his contempt for this "dangerous pathetic nobody who is now where he belongs".

I am glad his feelings on the matter are so clear-cut, because that will make it easier to move on. He's suffered enough. But the rest of us, who haven't suffered at all, should know better than to see his wishful thinking as cause for complacency.

As Reid also pointed out, there are still a lot of racists and homophobes out there. Most of them will never cross the line and become terrorists, but because many of those "harmless" nuts often speak "as if" they might relish the prospect, it is very hard to single out the ones who are really serious. Those who are serious can still pull information about bomb-making off the internet, and thanks to the web they can chat with other like-minded lunatics about The Turner Diaries, the book that gave Copeland the ideas that formed the backbone of his campaign. It's a sort of domino theory for Nazis: if you bomb minority groups, you can push them to retaliate against the majority, which then launches a race war against the minority and wipes it out for you.

Anyone who thought that would have to be mad. But another thing that the trial brought home to us is that we really don't have any idea what mad is. Even the experts can't seem to agree about Copeland's mental state. So it is perhaps not surprising that the press understands even less. Much, for example, was made of those things he said to that hoaxer who pretended to be a lovesick secretary, about having "tricked" so many people about his illness. These statements were taken as proof that he was sane, and proof that he had indeed fooled people. No one thought to ask if such games must be common among people suffering from psychosis or personality disorders, and that at least some of the experts might have been able to read between the lines of what he was saying. He wasn't mad then. He was bad.

This led people to wonder what it was that had made him bad. Many wondered if his smallness might have led to bullying in school. Or could it have been drugs? One of his brothers claimed that the case showed what "harm may be done by the failure to recognise, accept and nurture the sexuality of our offspring". It was this, he claimed, that turned a child into a murderer. His father, meanwhile, was almost certain that David had snapped after witnessing an argument between his parents at his brother's birthday party five years ago.

David's mother, now divorced, did not agree, but neither did she have any better way of explaining what had happened to her "sweet-natured" boy. Of course, no one else could either. There is nothing in David Copeland's past that millions of other young men haven't also experienced.

This makes me more concerned rather than less. I take even less comfort from the fact that Copeland did not know much about his victims. He was surprised at how many whites lived in Brixton. He never expected a heterosexual couple to be drinking in a gay pub with their gay friends. The fact that the three people he killed belonged to just such a group is not, as some commentators have suggested, proof that we live in a far more mixed, tolerant, and harmonious society than Copeland believed. If Copeland is a product of that same society, how could that possibly be? We all had a part in the making of this man, and when we made him, unlike Frankenstein, we did not stop at one.

Which is why I go cold when I come face to face with his picture. He's the face of the future. In one form or another, he'll be back. mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

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