Our new wonderland of human depravity

It is the private equivalent of modern warfare, with its smart bombs and apparent lack of collateral damage
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The Independent Online

One by one, the high-profile suspects are brought into the spotlight: the rock star, the deputy prison governor, the civil servant, the former teacher. Soon to come, we are told, will be a couple of MPs and another "legendary pop star". There has been nothing too startling in this so far. Since the 1950s, rock music has been associated with a fondness for youth that is often taken too far. Prison officers are close to criminality. The pervy pen-pusher, dodgy music master and kinky politician are familiar figures from the scandal pages.

One by one, the high-profile suspects are brought into the spotlight: the rock star, the deputy prison governor, the civil servant, the former teacher. Soon to come, we are told, will be a couple of MPs and another "legendary pop star". There has been nothing too startling in this so far. Since the 1950s, rock music has been associated with a fondness for youth that is often taken too far. Prison officers are close to criminality. The pervy pen-pusher, dodgy music master and kinky politician are familiar figures from the scandal pages.

But the carefully leaked reports surrounding Operation Ore have suggested that the 7,000 or so individuals suspected of having downloaded images of child pornography from a website do not conform to the popular image of the paedophile – a mad-eyed oddball living alone in a bedsit. They are mostly, we are told, respectable family types who have until now seemed to live normal, irreproachable lives.

Already, a note of uncertainty has begun to appear in press reports. Not so long ago, the message seems to be, we knew who the enemies of innocence were. They were other people, strangers to normality, criminals whose very complexions and facial expressions set them apart from the rest of us. Now, they could be your neighbour. They could be Daddy, working on the household accounts upstairs in his office. They could be you or me.

Something interesting and unnerving is being revealed by the sheer scale of this case which, it should be remembered, was caused when a single illegal website of the many hundreds on the internet was busted. The potential for badness, for the heady adventure of breaking rules or taking an inadmissible short-cut, has always been part of human nature. Some resist temptation out of genuine moral choice but many – probably most of us – keep more or less on the straight and narrow for fear of being found out.

When the chance to misbehave without being detected offers itself, few resist as the well-publicised case of the Coventry cashpoint machines, confirmed only this week. Although only one family was convicted of withdrawing huge amounts of money from faulty cash-dispensers, a whole community was cheerfully helping itself for a while. "Everyone in the village caught on," one of the accused told the court. "If we went to the machine after midnight, there was a huge queue."

Nice, middle-class folk were probably not part of that particular scam – queuing up to steal at midnight is risky and undignified, after all – but they are every bit as likely to give in to their potential for badness.

The internet has brought temptation into the home, introducing an entirely new and 21st century form of sin. Until now, those with desires of which society disapproves, ranging from common-or-garden adultery to the wilder shores of decadence, have had to take action in order to satisfy them. Infidelity involves effort, nerve and organisation; paying a visit to a prostitute or a porn emporium involves the risk of humiliation and exposure. In almost every case, self-disgust is never far away.

Now, thanks to the ruthless ingenuity of the porn industry, a wonderland of depravity, catering to the very worst in human nature, is available in the home to anyone with a computer and access to the internet. The most slothful and risk-averse of couch-potatoes can duck and dive through the Web and discover what it is like to be the pervert that they have eagerly read about in the press. The sin here is almost religious in its purity, offering the ultimate temptation, the nastiest fantasies effortlessly visualised, a quiet, seedy, forbidden thrill without consequence. It is a private equivalent of clean modern warfare, with its high technology, its smart bombs, its apparent lack of collateral damage.

The problem is that, in an age of sophisticated decadence, the appetite becomes jaded. One moment, Daddy has taken a break from the accounts to slip into a website porn shop, the next he is bored with the banal cliché sex that is on display. He wants more and worse – true, unambiguous badness. Inevitably, the desire born of boredom and satiety leads him towards the one crime that, by any normal standards, is unforgivable and beyond the pale, that against innocence itself.

It may or may not be true that this form of addiction will one day lead Daddy to switch off his computer and seek to enact in reality what he has experienced in cyberspace. What is undeniably the case is that his activities will have a direct consequence: all over the world, as a direct result of his vice, terrible crimes are being committed and young lives are blighted almost before they begin.

Soon there will be anguished headlines about the hidden evil in our midst. Politicians and policemen will quite rightly be taking steps to control the internet. But behind it all lurks bigger, more complex questions of private morality, of individual choice and responsibility, and of the limits a liberal society should place on itself.

terblacker@aol.com

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