Thursday, 29 April 2010

Rape and Revenge

Amidst all the politics that has been in the news today, there is one small item, unrelated to the election campaign that has caught my attention. The story concerns the fatal stabbing of a man who had previously been accused of sexual offences.

The reports on the radio were somewhat minimalistic, stating simply that a fourteen-year-old girl had been changed with the murder (by stabbing) of a 45-year-old man in Brixton. At the time I thought this mildly curious. Although reports of teenagers killing adults are not unheard of, they usually involved alleged killings of adults by teenage boys. When teenage girls are alleged to be involved it is usually either as an accomplice in a gang killing or when the victim is also a female.

Now I should point out that since the original arrest, several other arrests have been made and now both the girl and a fourteen-year-old boy have been charged. But what was more interesting – to the thriller writer in me – was that then stories began to emerge that the deceased had been investigated for alleged “sex offences.”

Since then matters have further crystallized, with the Crown Prosecution service acknowledging that such charges were considered but that it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Reports from the family of the accused girl have claimed that she claimed that the deceased man raped her and that she wanted to face him in court.

Now it is very important at this juncture that we do not prejudge the case – either with regard to the allegations of rape or with regard to the murder charges against the girl. But cases such as this, regardless of their outcome, do serve to focus our minds on such issues as unpunished crime, lack of confidence in the legal system and that very dangerous phenomenon known as vigilante justice.

Some people like to get up on their high horse about vigilante justice and portray it as worse than violent crime in general. Others make excuses for such practices and brush them off with glib phrases like “he had it coming,” without actually knowing whether or not the victim of the vigilante was really guilty of anything. Yet others, might get tempted to distinguish between a case in which no charges were brought and one in which charges have been brought and are awaiting trial, or at least a decision on whether to commit the case to trial.

This last one is touchingly na├»ve because it assumes that where no charges are brought it necessarily means that the suspect was innocent. The harsh reality is that guilty people can be acquitted, can avoid being charged for lack of evidence or the high costs of prosecution, or can in some cases escape detection altogether. The other side of the coin is that innocent people can be charged (like Colin Stagg), convicted and then cleared (like Barry George) or convicted and not cleared (like Michael Stone who was convicted of murdering Lin and Megan Russell on a basis of a “confession” invented by a career criminal in the neighbouring cell).

The problem of justice for victims is particularly acute with rape. Rape is a notoriously difficult to prove, because it is the only crime for which alleged consent is a defence. One cannot use consent in a theft case: one might claim that the owner made a voluntary donation, but that is unlikely to be taken seriously. There is no defence of consent in cases or murder, manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, grievous bodily harm or arson. But with rape, the prosecution must prove not only lack of consent but also that the accused either knew that the other party didn’t consent or was reckless as to whether or not the other party consented. In practice – in the real world – this is a very tough nut to crack.

Small wonder then that only six percent of reported rapes result in a criminal conviction. This is an appallingly low figure. Between the police taking the decision to “no action” some rape reports, others being dropped by the CPS and 58% of those that go to trial resulting in a guilty verdict, it is easy to see how this happens, as well as why. But it is of little comfort to the victims.

Even allowing for the fact that some reported rapes are invented, one must also allow for the fact that many rapes (some would say most) go unreported. Certainly based on the way rape victims are treated by the law (and the barristers who represent the rapists) it would be reasonable to conclude that the number of rapes that go unreported is far more than the number of false allegations of rape.

In general the figures are no improvement on those from the time that Sue Lees wrote her book Carnal Knowledge, exploring the way the law treats rape victims.

It should come as no surprise then that a rape victim might decide to take the law into their own hands and kill the rapist. Indeed the only thing that is surprising is that it does not happen more often. Perhaps part of the reason is one revealed by Sue Lees herself in her excellent book. When men hear about rape of women they care about, the first thing they think of is revenge. Some report that their male friends respond by offering to “beat up” the rapist. But – argues Lees – what women want is not so much revenge as “empowerment.” After the fact
vicarious revenge, carried out by a male friend, would hardly make them feel empowered.

But therein lies the heart of the problem as well as the answer. For whilst vicarious revenge does not convey any sense of empowerment to the victim, personal revenge just might. And the question we should now be asking is will we see more rape victims killing the rapists in the future? Because let’s face it the penalties for murder are low and so we have a diminishing deterrent against murder on the one hand and the rise in rape (without a significant rise in conviction rates for rape) on the other. Is it not inevitable that women will increasingly resort to direct action to empower themselves against rapists, including by the extreme sanction of killing them?

This is not a happy situation. But it is a product of what came before. Vigilante justice is a symptom not a disease. And this applies as much to a woman killing a rapist as to any other vigilante action.

The theme of rape and revenge features very prominently in my forthcoming thriller No Way Out.  In this case, the character seeking revenge uses guile rather than force. I suppose this is only natural. Guile could be called the “weak person’s force,” but it could also be called the “clever person’s force.” It depends how you look at it. Like direct force, it can be used for both noble and ignoble purposes.

But such is the ethical paradox. As long as there is force and guile in the world, there will be injustice. And as long as there is injustice in the world, there will be both force and guile.

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