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When, if ever, is it right to use recent horrific crimes to push for political changes you wanted anyway?

I was struck by a particular contrast between two opinion columns that appeared in today’s Guardian. Both made reference to crimes in which many children were killed.

The first column I would like to look at, written by Zoe Williams, refers to the crime described here. Mick Philpott had lived in a ménage à trois with his wife, Mairead, his mistress Lisa Willis and the eleven children the two women had bore him. When Lisa Willis walked out on this arrangement, taking her five children – and their welfare benefits – with her, the Philpotts and another man set a fire at the Philpott house with the aim of framing Ms Willis for it, which would help him regain custody of their children and the income stream that came with them, and also so that Philpott could be seen to rescue the other six children who still lived in that house. It would also aid him in his custody battle to be hailed a hero. As it turned out, he could not rescue them. All six died in the fire. The three conspirators have been jailed for multiple manslaughter, with Mick Philpott receiving the longest sentence as the dominant figure in the group.

The Daily Mail published an article headed “Vile product of Welfare UK: Man who bred 17 babies by five women to milk benefits system is guilty of killing six of them.”

Zoe Williams of the Guardian was deeply angered by this. Her Guardian column has the title “Don’t get mad about the Mail’s use of the Philpotts to tarnish the poor – get even.” Ms Williams writes,

It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits. When any section of society is demonised on irrational grounds we have to take that seriously, so I will complain to the Press Complaints Commission, and I hope you will too.

The readers’ comments share Ms Goodman’s outrage, as does a similar comment piece about the same crime by Graeme Cooke which says,

There’s nothing wrong with moral principles in welfare policy but making political capital from an appalling crime is offensive.

The second, contrasting Guardian column, by Amy Goodman, referred to the gun massacre of twenty children and six adults carried out by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. That crime and its legal and moral implications were discussed at length in this blog at the time it occurred.

Amy Goodman’s column has the title “It’s time for the majority to move on gun control” and includes the words:

The moment to pass gun control was when the national attention was riveted on the massacre at Sandy Hook, the brutal slaying of 20 children and six adults. Before the broken bodies of those victims fade from memory, our broken body politic must be mended. What is needed is a vigorous grassroots movement, to provide the leadership so lacking in Washington DC.

I do not wish to simply jeer at the inconsistency of the reaction of the Guardian’s writers and readers. They could quite fairly throw the same jibe back at us – I assume that most readers of this blog oppose gun control and objected to the demonisation of American gun owners because of one grotesque crime on much the same grounds as Ms Williams objects to the demonisation of British welfare claimants for one grotesque crime. I post this to ask, not answer, the question, when is it offensive and when is it a moral necessity to make political capital over the bodies of dead children?

38 comments to When, if ever, is it right to use recent horrific crimes to push for political changes you wanted anyway?

  • Runcie Balspune

    Guido had the same argument thrown at him by Owen Jones, almost as if its a conspiratorial movement.


    But the argument is false, this is not about people on welfare, it is about people, like Philpott, who abuse welfare, something the leftists are not willing to address, and why should they when someone else pays for it?

  • Clyde

    The short answer is that – on both sides of the “debate” – it is never acceptable to use these horrific crimes to further a narrow political agenda. Unless it furthers one’s own agenda.

  • Lee Moore

    Using recent horrific crimes to push for political changes you wanted anyway is fair and reasonable when the political change you desire is good, but depraved and exploitative if the political change you desire is evil.

  • Snorri Godhi

    “this is not about people on welfare, it is about people, like Philpott, who abuse welfare, something the leftists are not willing to address, and why should they when someone else pays for it?”

    No, that is the wrong way to frame the debate:
    it is not about the people abusing welfare, it is about the people (improperly called “leftists”) allowing people to abuse welfare.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Lee Moore, it’s not that I hadn’t thought of that argument. But something about its bland neatness repels me. Somewhere in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, he quotes an inquisitor or someone similar saying that it’s all right for us to censor opposing arguments but outrageous for you to do it because we are in truth but you are in error.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Emotions move us to action, but the action itself should be sensible.

  • Alsadius

    I think the first thing to remember in these situations is that the blame always falls on the perpetrator. Philpott and Lanza did this, our legal system did not. If you can still make a political point while acknowledging that, and if you can do it in a civil way, then go ahead.

  • I hope Lee wouldn’t mind if I use his modified response to give my two cents:

    Using recent horrific crimes to push for political changes you wanted anyway is fair and reasonable when you can honestly show that the political change you desire could have brought an outcome that is significantly better than the one under discussion, but depraved and exploitative if that is not the case

  • Paul Marks

    Leftists are hypocritical – and bears ….. in the woods.

    The same people who used the killings and Sandy Hook to push for “gun control” are indeed denouncing any link between welfare policy (the “Underclass” described in Charles M.s “Losing Ground”, and he did work in Britain as well as the United States) and the burning of the children by Mr Philpott.

  • veryretired

    I love the series “World at War” from many years ago, not least because of the narration by Sir Lawrence.

    However, I cannot watch the last installment, called “Remember”, I believe, because of the film of the death camps.

    The state is the ultimate weapon, more dangerous and more deadly than any plague, any asteroid, any lunatic with a gun, any anything anywhere or any time in human history.

    Add to the camps the children starved in the Ukraine, in China during the “great leap” into death, or anywhere else in the world where the state has been allowed to run unchecked, driven by the lusts and delusions of those driven themselves by the demons deep inside their tortured minds, and there will never come a day when their cries stop echoing in the ears of those of us who listen.

    These people who squabble endlessly about this rule, or that law, as if it will solve the evil that lurks in men’s souls, let them babble.

    I know who the enemy is, who threatens my children and grandchildren, who runs the camps, builds the ovens, signs the orders in the middle of the night that mean death uncounted, unfathomable, unimagineable, except that my heart has counted, has looked down into its depths, and tries through the tears to comprehend.

    Talk about Newtown all you want. When you’re ready to talk about Treblinka, honestly, really talk about how and why it happened, let me know.

  • Lee Moore

    Natalie, Alisa – I was being a wee bit cynical. I think Alisa’s reformulation moves the comment from the cynical pile into the reasonable pile. In this particular instance I think the welfare connection with the Philpott crime is significantly less apparent than the gun connection with the Lanza crime. The Graunistas would argue that Philpott’s prime motive was to punish his woman – a good solid Guardian motivation – rather than to boost his welfare takehome. There would be a much closer connection with the death penalty, which the Graunistas would also deprecate. So they would still be arguing “this is not the time” but because they could at least see some connection, they would be less furious – ie I do think the fury is related to their perception of the paucity of the connection.

    Anyway, it seems to me that libertarians are always likely to be on to a loser on this emotional blackmail thing. Public emotions tend to be provoked by violent death, crime, cruelty, war, terrorism and so on, and the simple soundbite remedies are almost exclusively from the “the government must clamp down harder” box. (I say almost but I can’t immediately think of any counterexamples.) Libertarians are generally going to want to argue for the “simmer down, what about the unintended consequences” point of view. Which mixes poorly with emotions.

  • bloke in spain

    Oh, I’m firmly behind the Guardian here. They get it. The game’s got no rules. It’s what works that counts.

  • I think it is always just fine, Natalie. I see this as war, not a mere discourse across civil society. Do whatever works, they sure as hell will.

  • Both crimes discussed were so extreme and committed by individuals who were so nuts and so far from the norm that I doubt much can be generalised from their actions in any meaningful way. Emotional reactions to such crimes lead to bad laws. So no, I don’t think it is fine, either for us or for them.

    This will not stop other people from doing so, of course.

  • Bruce

    And if my documented research is any indicator, much “knee-jerk” legislative reaction to an outrage is, in fact, no such thing.

    The classic example is the draconian firearms laws introduced after the Port Arthur massacre in Australia.

    The entire “proposal” had, in fact, been circulating the various State Parliaments and police forces for nearly two decades.

    The Lamestream media had been promoting much the same for even longer.

    The horror in Tasmania was simply a convenient, bloody hook on which to hang these long-sought laws. In short, “A Solution in search of a Problem”. The ultimate purpose was to punish all those who HAD NOT committed the crime; a pre-emptive strike against those in daily contact with reality and who may have the temerity to question the role of government.

    What has been the result of these draconian laws? Massive reduction in civil liberty, for a start. Massive reduction in the overall crime rate? Absolutely not.

  • jdgalt

    How about, “Only when the proposed law, had it existed, would have saved those children and at an acceptable price.”

  • Myno

    This conversation brings up a point that is at once tangential and central. There is a generalization of “too big to fail”. It is “too painful to contemplate”. That rule governs public response along any number of lines. The libertarian response is often rightfully, “Let it fail,” but the emotional backlash in our highly interconnected, high information availability low information absorption societies, is overwhelming to our political systems. By “Let it fail,” I here mean a broad range of things that statists often seek to control. Let people own guns, despite the tragedies that ensue when insane gun owners go postal. Let banks fail, even though gullible depositors had not thought to protect themselves, and whole systems of monetary policy come crashing down on all our heads. Let welfare recipients go begging, though the private charity system of ages past has been eviscerated by government overreach. Let countries like Egypt run out of money, though it ushers in mass starvation as a consequence of the Arab Spring turning to political chaos, adopting philosophies for which market forces and the Western concept of Rule of Law are anathema. Let all these bad things happen. Let the world be washed of its “dislocations” as the Austrian Economists are fond of saying. Let people really see the consequences of their (in)actions. Let them live with the consequences of their metaphysics. Only then will the metaphysics of Libertarianism be taken seriously. Seriously. Or is that just “too painful to contemplate”?

  • AngryTory

    In this case it is simply the truth that a single law change would have prevent both massacres.

    If there was no welfare, there would be no Philpott family to kill.

    If there was no welfare, there would be no massive public “school” to kill either.

    Ending welfare solves the problem.

  • Tedd

    Never. Always try to take the high road.

    But it puts me in mind of this: “Every candidate is a candidate for change, using the failed ideas of the past, to create a brave new world for the children.” (Tony Woodlief)

  • veryretired

    Painful or not, the logical consequences of one’s actions follow as surely as night follows day.

    Cause and effect will not be denied. Magical thinking and an ideology completely divorced from the realities of life on this earth will inevitably lead to enormous pain and suffering.

    Such are the wages of irrationaility coupled with the lust for power that can be found lurking behind every smiling pol with a new proposal for another program to demonstrate the compassion of the state.

    The consequences will arrive soon enough. The key is to make sure those truly responsible are identified and held accountable, for once, and the usual scapegoats are spared their unjust condemnation.

    When the elites who have brought us to the edge of the abyss are cleaning toilets and picking up garbage, and the guy who’s been running a successful hardware store is left alone to open another across town without asking any of the big shots for their permission, then we will be on our way to a social healing, and a rational culture.

  • David C

    Very retired – great comments. Not sure they’re entirely on topic though. Thanks Natalie for giving us yet another example of hypocrisy at the Groan.

  • Thanks Lee.

    I so wish I could agree with Tedd:-)

  • Ian Bennett

    The two stories are fundamentally different, in my view. Supporters of gun control, who use the events at Newtown to bolster their agenda, wish to increase the assault on liberty. Opponents of the welfare state, who use the Philpott case to bolster their agenda, wish to reduce the assault on liberty. Both groups are making fallacious connections, however.

  • I so wish I could agree with Tedd 🙂

    You could always agree with me, even though I’ve only got one D in my name. 😉

    I like to argue that people can’t care about the children if they don’t care about the rule of law. So often, the people who exploit stories like this do it with an attitude of demonizing anybody who disagrees with them, and an attitude that, if you don’t want to go along with the proposed law, you don’t care about the children.

    Nonsense, I say! In regards with the Newtown shootings (as an American, I’m not very well-versed on the Philpott case) and gun banning in general, we have a political class that wants to infantilize the children and leave them in perpetual fear. This cannot possibly be good for the children!

    And if anybody tries the “good intentions” excuse, I say no, you don’t have good intentions! Because, we know what lies at the end of the path you wish to take. Prohibition has failed with massively bad consequences, and if you wish deliberately to set off on that same road again, you know where it’s going and cannot have good intentions in taking that road.

  • Gimme a ‘d’?…:-)

  • PeterT

    Great post (as always from Natalie) and great comments.

  • [contorts body into shape of D]

    I’m just glad you didn’t want me to give you a xi.

  • SC

    So Zoe Williams says “It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits.”

    No-one is saying that the other people on welfare are responsible for Philpott. They’re saying it’s the welfare system that is responsible (at rather, partly responsible). And Williams, while she is thick, is not that thick. She is making this mistake deliberately.

    On the issue of hypocrisy, notice how leftists usually make out that systems are all-important, and individual actions are not. Yet in this case suddenly it’s all about individual responsibility, and the system that dominated this man’s life is somehow not an issue at all.

  • Rich Rostrom

    … when the recent horrific crimes would be prevented by the political changes one wants.

    Suppose I want to see demented mentally ill people placed under restraint, and the law does not provide for that. A demented mentally ill person commits a horrific crime. It is entirely appropriate for me to cite that incident in support of the change in law I want.

    Suppose I want mandatory confiscation of the vehicle of any person caught driving with a suspended license. A driver on a suspended license causes a horrific accident. It is entirely appropriate for me to cite that incident in support of the change in law I want.

    It is not appropriate when my reasons for wanting the law changed have no connection to the horrific incident.

    As to the Philpott incident: the case exposed the criminal irresponsible behavior of Philpott in begetting all those bastard children on the dole in the first place. The arson and manslaughter is not the problem – that’s not any sort of habit among dole bludgers. It’s the dole bludging, and Philpott was a particular bad case.

  • Tedd


    I agree with you, except that I’m not sure the mistake is as deliberate as you suggested. I’ve found that many people see the world through a very strong group-identity filter. They judge the group first, and then the people within that group can only be judged on the scale defined by that group judgement.

    To such a person, a welfare recipient is part of a group whose value lies on a scale defined by the value of the welfare state. If the welfare state is axiomatically good, then no welfare recipient can be judged very harshly. Likewise, if gun ownership is bad, then no gun owner can be regarded very favourably.

    Of course, following that perceptive framework, a person could make exactly the opposite value judgements, equally logically. That’s why people who have this strong group-identity mindset tend to be maniacally obsessed with “correct” value judgements about each group.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tedd–that’s a very interesting comment. It seems to me that it bears on the way that certain people or ideas come to be the nucleus around whom or which a group could almost be said to “accrete”–such as Freud, Marx, and unfortunately a certain subset of Miss Rand’s followers.

    An ideology such as New-Leftism can also serve as the nucleus for such an accretion.

    Also, your observation bears upon the load of disapproval heaped upon those who differ with some of the points of dogma held by most or many of the group’s members, not to mention the enormous vitriol to which apostates are subjected–until such time as they are “disappeared” by their former cohort, of course.

    I imagine the group’s members share a feeling of betrayal of the group, as well as the feeling that their group, their ideology, and their very selves are being spat (or s*at) upon.

  • Tedd and Julie: I may be wrong, but isn’t what both of you are describing known as ‘collectivism’?

  • Paul Marks

    It is Alisa.

    The group label that someone has is meaningless – as is, in this context, the word “we” (who is “we”?).

    Each individual person has their own opinions – and should be judged on their own position, not on the group label.

    As for the Welfare State – a lot of good people are trapped in it (they have no real alternative). They are not responsible for the death of the West.

    The intelletucals are – although that is, itself, a collective abstraction.

    Certain inviduals who spread certain ideas are responible for the death of the West – for all the horror that has been and is to come.

    And even most of “them” do not really understand what they are doing – they are kind and gentle souls.

  • Tedd


    I would describe collectivism as a set of beliefs, whereas what I’m talking about is more of a personality type. I think Julie is right that it manifests itself right across the political spectrum, probably even among anarchists! But I would agree that it lends itself especially well to collectivist ideologies.

    On a related note, I’ve just been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” He describes what psychologists call System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is the rapid, intuitive judgements and decisions that you make — things like recognizing emotions from facial expressions. System 2 is deliberative judgement and decision-making. I picture the characteristic I described above as a System 1 characteristic — a predisposition toward a certain pattern of judgements. Whereas collectivism (or any ism) I think of as the result of a System 2, deliberative process.

  • Point well taken, Tedd – although I tend to think of collectivism as a personality trait as well as a set of beliefs*, since the two areas can hardly ever be entirely separated anyway. IOW, and to use the two types of thinking model, a certain kind of type 1 thinking will necessarily lead one to a certain kind of type 2 thinking.

    *Although I may well be guilty of semantic sloppiness here.

  • Paul Marks

    Tedd – a facial expression can certainly get a person into trouble (and even closing one’s eyes, to avoid making an eye contact challenge, is sometimes not enough to avoid offending someone).

    I will try and leave aside my bias against “Thinking Fast and Slow” and think about the suggestion you have made.

    I tend to make my mind about someone very fast (whether they are a threat, whether they are Cong, and so on) – sometimes within a couple of seconds.

    Therefore, I must be operating on the basis of things such as the sound of their voice and their facial expression (a couple of days ago I had the thoughts “Cameron supporter” about a person sitting behind me, and I had not seen him and only heard him say a couple of wordsn- it was the upper class drawl, and the sneering-amused contempt in his voice that indicated it to me, he could have been reading from the telephone directory and I would have thought “Cameron supporter”).

    This would seem to be “type one” thinking. Not 100% accurate – but certainly fast (and sometimes one does not have time for anything longer).

    But I do not see why “type two” thinking (slow deliberation) should lead to collectivism?

    Unless you mean are pointing at the sort of things that Glenn Beck points at with his “your dog is not smarter than you” thing.

    “I am tired of people saying “the dog knew he was a bad guy [a murderer a rapist whaterver] but I did not” – your dog is not smarter than you, you knew he was a bad guy as well. You out smarted yourself by thinking no-I-must-be-wrong…..”

    The first thought is often (although not always) the correct thought.

    Is it wrong to draw a firearm on someone and order them to jump in a lake? Someone you do not know – and has never done anything wrong to you (or anyone else).

    Yes it is wrong.

    Not “I thought it was wrong – but then these learned academics educated me and taught me that it was for the greater good”.

    M. Thatcher may not have been a libertarian philosopher (or a libertarian at all), but she would have understand that.

    The lady is dead now – and I am sad.

    Now we have the sneering remarks to look forward to.

  • Tedd


    Yes, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that deliberative thought necessarily leads to collectivism. But every ism has logical arguments behind it; they differ mainly in their premises. That’s why I said all isms are products of System 2 (or type two), deliberative thinking. The Marxist and Rawlsian families of collectivist ideologies (are there any others?) also lead to conclusions that are easily expressed heuristically (“the rich get richer while the poor get poorer;” “property is theft”). That gives them a powerful advantage over other isms that don’t translate into System 1 heuristics so easily.


    Reading Kahneman’s book made one aspect of my outlook more concrete for me. I’ve long believed that it’s important to “take the high road” in political debate, by which I mean emphasizing the deliberative side of the issue and avoiding the heuristic. You might think of it as anti-Alinskyism. Heuristic (System 1) thinking is powerful and important because it’s extremely efficient: it trades off accuracy for speed and, in most situations, speed is more useful. But, for a complex subject such as a political subject, speed matters little to finding the right answer, whereas deliberative thought (System 2) matters a lot.

    I don’t dispute that Alinsky’s strategies are effective in the short term. But the struggle for freedom never was and never will be won in the short term. In the long term reason prevails, and the heuristics of the future will probably come from the reason of today. Consider the luddites: they had the clear upper hand, heuristically, in their day. It was hard to get people to understand that the solution to the dislocations that technology created wasn’t to destroy the technology. But, today, relatively few argue that greater productivity is bad, per se. The luddite heuristics persist to some degree, but they’ve mostly shifted over to the misanthropic, wealth-is-bad crowd, giving them much less influence over the average person (who still wishes to be richer than he or she currently is).

    By a similar process, all political debate is won in the long run by deliberative thinking, even though most people continue to make political choices heuristically.

  • Paul Marks

    Many thanks Tedd – I understand better now.