So three prostitutes have been murdered. They weren’t people, then? They had no lives outside their sexual trade, no families, no loved ones, no hopes, fears or plans? This is not to suggest that their work is irrelevant, or should never have been mentioned, or should not figure in the analysis of the “back-story” of this appalling series of events. But it is intolerable that these women’s lives should be so one-dimensionally dismissed. By focusing so relentlessly on their status as prostitutes, their worth as human beings is systematically dismantled.
There is a ghastly parallel here with the treatment of the alleged killer of these women. Leaving aside what has become sickeningly routine in the reporting of cases like this, when any semblance of a truly fair trial is torpedoed by the quasi-trial of prurient and salacious innuendo conducted in advance by the tabloids, the usual demonisation of offenders continues apace. And so a terrible symmetry begins to emerge. Less-than-human victims, whose very trade it is suggested in some way indicates that their terrifying demise was almost self-inflicted; and a monster perpetrator who is not so much human as embodiment of an evil that has a palpable presence outside of any actual person.
And where does that leave us, the more or less willing audience for this danse macabre? It leaves us distanced and off the hook. We are enabled to ditch moral responsibility in favour of horror-film detachment. Prostitution is nothing to do with us. Those who embark upon such a career sign away their right to our engagement, our sympathy, our understanding. Wickedness is likewise removed from us and bestowed upon a pantomime villain with whom we have no connection, who is not like us in any way, and whom we can safely use as a lightning conductor for our own darkest thoughts and feelings.
There are no winners here.* Certainly not the hapless victims. Certainly not the accused. Certainly not justice, either as an ideal or as embodied in the criminal justice system. And certainly not our collective health.
Perhaps, even worse, by this routinised, choreographed reduction of tragedy into a repulsive entertainment, we ensure that it will be endlessly repeated, as our attention is fatally distracted from the causes and what might be done to mitigate them.
* Actually, I’m wrong about this. There are some winners – the proprietors of trashy newspapers and sensationalist websites who see their circulations peak, and their advertising revenues jump. But their ephemeral benefits reaped from the misery of others will soon revert to the steady income from footballers’ infidelities, talent-show trivia, and soft-porn photography.