Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
Today is the Saturday nearest to Guy Fawkes Night. In half an hour I will be off to a fireworks party to commemorate the foiling of a dangerous Catholic plot against the realm. My Catholic family never had the slightest compunction about burning the chief conspirator in effigy. The plot was real, feasible and evil. In the years that followed, many innocent Catholics were suspected and sometimes killed for plots that were imaginary. The cry of “Popish plot” retained its power to whip up the mob for generations afterwards.
The target changes. I do not usually link to articles behind the Times paywall, but this piece by Matthew Parris, “Our need to hate creates another victim”, is so timely and true that I shall break that rule.
On Tuesday an item appeared on page five of this newspaper. Our treatment was typical of most of the national press: only The Independent put it on the front page. Fleet Street does not appear to have judged that readers would see this as a big story.
Our headline was: “ ‘Paedophile’ killed by neighbours was wrongly accused — Disabled man had photographed flower vandals”.
Bijan Ebrahimi, who lived alone and had learning difficulties, loved tending to hanging baskets of flowers outside his Bristol flat. When youths vandalised them he photographed the incident, to complain. A neighbour decided he was a paedophile, the rumours spread, and an angry crowd gathered outside his home, chanting “paedo, paedo”.
Every reader will be familiar with the very great difficulty we face when the burden of our advice to an anxious friend is not that a problem is imaginary but that he or she has got it out of all proportion. You are not claiming his worry is groundless; you are not even trying to make light of it. You are really just trying to get the worry into some kind of perspective. How does one strike the balance between scaling an anxiety down to size and appearing to dismiss it?
I find myself in that difficulty now, when what I want to suggest is most emphatically not that the problem of paedophilia does not exist, but that as a society we have become unhealthily obsessed by it. A kind of madness is gripping our age: I felt that as I pictured the terrified Bijan Ebrahimi, the crowd chanting “paedo, paedo” outside his flat, and nobody daring to try to protect him. And this in my own country.
I suppose the obvious comparisons are with the 17th and other centuries’ waves of hysteria about witchcraft, and my fellow columnist David Aaronovitch once made those comparisons bravely and powerfully on this page. But (as David acknowledged) there’s a difference: the case is easier to make when the object of the public’s fears simply doesn’t exist and never did. Paedophilia does exist, and this generation’s better understanding of how widespread it can be and what harm it can do acknowledges truths that our grandparents’ generation overlooked or ignored. If we must go back centuries for our parallels in the English imagination, maybe French spies or Popish plots are better comparisons, for these were by no means always imagined. . . but those days seem so distant.
For a public panic that some who are alive today can remember, I’d suggest we cross the Atlantic and return to the 1950s. So poisoned has Senator Joe McCarthy’s reputation become that we tend to forget that the threat to the security of the West from the USSR was probably real. There really were Communist plots, there really was an extensive network of Soviet espionage, there really were unAmerican activities, and Moscow really did hope to foment revolutionary unrest in Western nations. It’s just that McCarthy whipped the American public into a state of disproportionate fear about it all and ruined many innocent lives.