Philip Hensher: Is murder worse when the victim is a police officer?

Individuals are equal; but crimes, even within the same category, are not equal in horror
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The Independent Online

The murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky is an unusually horrible crime. Even these days, considering that police officers often find themselves in situations far more threatening than anything you or I will ever encounter, the murder of a police officer is more rare than you might think.

There is no doubt that such murders have become more frequent. When, in the 1950 film The Blue Lamp, PC George Dixon was shot and killed, the crime was so rare as to be almost inconceivable in the mind of its audience, and the whole nation was deeply shocked. That is no longer the case. Nevertheless, taking into account the dangers of the job, it remains relatively rare, and, as we have seen in the last couple of days, a nation can still be shocked by it.

In the immediate aftermath of this murder, two opposed views could be heard on the subject of the crime itself. Was it, people asked, so much graver to murder a police officer than to murder anyone else? The question was answered in two irreconcilable ways.

On the one hand, there was Mr Michael Winner, who has done sterling work on behalf of another murdered policewoman, PC Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead outside the Libyan Embassy 20 years ago. Mr Winner said that it was, indeed, so grave a crime as to warrant the reintroduction of the death penalty. There have been plenty of other people, within the police service and outside, insisting on the same point, and often going on to a shopping list of other crimes which might deserve capital punishment, as if the point were already granted.

On the other hand is a point of view represented by Mrs Jayne Zito. Mrs Zito is a woman from whom it is hard to withhold the highest degree of admiration. After her husband, Jonathan, was murdered by a violent schizophrenic who had been released with wholly inadequate supervision, she refused to be turned into a figure of pathetic tragedy, and instead set up the Zito Trust to campaign for the proper welfare of the mentally ill.

Ms Zito has said that, in her view, all lives are of equal value, and one murder of any individual is as grave a crime as another. That, one may think, is a reasonable point. Certainly, there is something very distasteful indeed about the way some murders gather enormous amounts of press attention and public outrage, and others happen without any public awareness, and certainly no public concern.

It would, indeed, be very easy cynically to draw up a list of factors about the victim which contributes to publicity and public shock, which makes one murder worse than another - or, frankly, from a newspaper's point of view, "better". An attractive victim is "better", for these purposes, than an ugly one. A victim with a blameless life is to be preferred over one involved in criminal activity in some way. A female victim is "better" than a male one. A white victim is "better" than one from a racial minority. And, of course, a young victim is better than an old one.

If you happen to be old, black, not very attractive and have a criminal record when you are murdered, you cannot expect to get much in the way of press coverage. Indeed, a year and a half ago, a man fulfilling most of these criteria was shot dead half a mile from where I live; I am still waiting to see a single report about it in any newspaper.

It is quite right to say that lives are, indeed, of equal value, and it is horrible that murders are publicised according to the photogenic quality of the victim. But it is wrong to say that the murder of any individual is as bad as any other. Individuals are equal; but crimes, even within the same category, are not equal in horror.

PC Beshenivsky's murder was certainly one of the morally worst murders imaginable. But it wasn't so frightful, as the newspapers seemed to think, because she was a woman; because she was blonde and the mother or stepmother of five young children. Those are merely sad factors. The murder was so shocking because it was the murder of a police officer. So violent an assault on something we all rely on to maintain civilised society is, indeed, a worse crime than other murders, and though there is no case for reintroducing the death penalty in a civilised society, it deserves to be punished to the utmost degree the law permits.

It would be quite wrong to say that the fact that she was a police officer falls into the same category as the facts that she was blonde and a mother. Newspapers may value those facts equally as contributory elements to the disgrace of the crime, but we shouldn't dismiss them with equal lightness. Most of these details are sad bids for our sentiment. But one is of considerable gravity.