Friday, December 12, 2008

Louis Theroux's Law and Order in...London

The last two Sundays have seen Louis Theroux, another of the BBC's more outstanding figures, doing his documentary thing on Law and Order in two vastly different areas: a notoriously volatile district in Philadelphia, US, and Johannesburg, South Africa, the focus of last week's programme. The latter, particularly, delved into the almost lawless areas outside JBurg, the shanty-town sites Diepsloot, where the terms 'community' and 'mob' became blurred. With little to no law enforcement from the police in place in Diepsloot, self-styled protection firms - privately-run security forces - set themselves up to distribute justice around the area, for an agreed price, by whoever has the money to buy the service.

In the Johannesburg documentary, Theroux repeatedly highlighted the problems Diepsloot experienced without a police presence: where crimes were committed, the private security firms had their own methods with dealing with criminals. Increasingly, however, Theroux saw how villagers would take matters into their own hands, hearing how the 'community' caught and burned a man who had been stealing. 'Community' seemed to be a vague term during the programme - at times it brought a sense of togetherness for the residents, united in their plight on the outskirts of J'burg, ignored by police and riddled with problems. Yet 'Community' also became a term that was used to justify the violent nature of the residents' treatment of criminals. The people Louis Theroux spoke to about the capturing and burning of criminals (which happened more than once while he was out there) simply shrugged it off as part and parcel of the place, a consequence of the lawlessness pervading Diepsloot. They called it "A South African solution to a South African problem".

Theroux's point might have been to highlight the huge difference between gun crime on the homicide-ridden Phily streets to, say, London or Birmingham, and the sheer violence of the out-of-control Diepsloot to our policed towns in Britain, but today saw a damning case of a 'mob mindset' (eloquence as ever from The Sun) within this country that is little short than the South African examples.

BBC's take is slightly calmer, but both sources make reference to the evidence that Mr Cunningham was killed by a group of people, stabbed and mutilated by the 'vigilantes' in return for his history of sexual offences, possibly some more recent. Mr Cunningham had recently been removed from the register, however, seven years since the offence that he had been place on it for, and had not been arrested for any related offences since 2003. But The Sun in particular highlights that Mr Cunningham's death was most likely to be a result of something that had happened recently.

The point in this instance isn't whether the paedophile deserved to die or not for what he did, and may have done. It's the manner in which more than one person appears to have murdered Mr Cunningham in a case of citizen justice that equates to mob behaviour. The UK prides itself on being one of the most forward-thinking and advanced democracies in the West, nevermind in the world, but the tribal mindset of those responsible for killing Andrew Cunningham have branded elements of our society as savage as the poverty-striken, crime-filled shanty-town communities in South Africa that Louis Theroux last week claimed were a million miles from our own.

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