COMMENTARY: Innocents and innocence over spree-killing trial
Manchester teenagers' plans provide an eerie reminder
By William Moore
Last week a jury at Manchester Crown Court found two teenage English boys innocent of charges of conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. The jury took just 45 minutes to dismiss the evidence offered by the prosecution - quite an impressive body of material by any standards, and some of it disturbingly familiar in tone to people in this country - and to accept the defence counsel's plea that this was mere "fantasising" and the "hare-brained" schemes of two essentially well-adjusted teenagers.
The upshot of the court acquittal was that a large number of people in Britain commented acidly on online forums about the cost to the taxpayer of the "unnecessary prosecution" by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and also raised the spectre of "thought-crime", bringing some well-worn Orwellian images into the spotlight. A few others - drawn mostly from the usual suspects of the "hang ‘em high" law & order brigade, which naturally makes them easy targets - did question the wisdom of what the boys had done to get themselves into trouble in the first place.
Writing a diary about blowing up large numbers of people at Audenshaw High School and a local shopping centre as a tribute to the 1999 Columbine Massacre on the 10th anniversary (last April) is not, perhaps, the best way of making friends and influencing people. Having plans of the school and details of how acetone peroxide can be used as a detonator was also probably unwise.
What has interested me about the case is less the acquittal of the boys - it was always going to be hard to determine how close Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight actually were to going through with their plans - and more the apparent nonchalance with which the case has since been forgotten, lost in the undergrowth of the latest celebrity scandal or drowned by the drumbeats of an upcoming election campaign. It is almost as if the British perception is that nice, white, quite intelligent but somewhat dysfunctional teenagers who have read too much Nietzsche "wouldn't really do that sort of thing, now would they?" It's some foreign madness. This was just harmless adolescent day-dreaming, spawned by an excess of splatter-movies. End of story.
Is this touching innocence, wilful negligence, or outright hubris? Are they deliberately distancing themselves from "the American disease", and perhaps forgetting it can happen closer to home than in Colorado? I imagine most Britons would claim it is none of those things - the two teenagers "just weren't terrorists" - although interestingly the "T-word" was never used about these alleged would-be spree killers. On the other hand, some online commentators have dared to suggest that had they been called Khan or even O'Connor, the jury would have taken a good deal more than 45 minutes to reach a decision, notwithstanding the fact that the defendants' motives were only adolescent angst and rage against their teachers and classmates, and not Jihadist zeal or the last knockings of the Irish question.
Where things get a bit messy is if one views the case from Finland, with the hindsight of Myyrmanni, of Jokela, and of Kauhajoki. Especially when one looks at the sort of material put out by the perpetrators of those atrocities and the material presented at the trial by the Manchester prosecutors. The same Columbine wannabe mentality is present; the same edgy mix of bravado, inflated egos, and sharp intellect. The stock references to anti-depressants are there, too. It all seems dishearteningly familiar, and Jokela's Pekka-Eric Auvinen even gets a favourable name-check, along with the Columbine killers and Seung-Hui Cho from Virginia Tech.
Those who suggest the authorities should have done nothing might like to step into the shoes of the Kauhajoki police inspector who is currently facing charges of negligent dereliction of duty and a civil suit from the relatives of those shot at the Kauhajoki Vocational School by Matti Juhani Saari, for apparently deciding that Saari's online bluster was no more than that. The British police can hardly have been unaware of the ordure that would have rained down on their heads had they stood idle, and if...
But back to innocence. Shortly after I landed up in Finland, several decades ago, I was having a drink in a Helsinki hotel bar when I was approached by a heavy-set plainclothes policeman who wanted to open my briefcase, which I'd left with my coat at the door. As we did so, I naturally asked him what his reasons were. "We've had a bomb call." He looked at his watch. "Ten minutes. Everyone has to get out." Oh. Right.
My case was clean, but we all left the bar and stood around outside while the sniffer-dogs worked through the building. Many of the bar's patrons pressed their noses to the hotel's large plate-glass windows to see better what was going on. I stood well back on the other side of the street; I had after all just arrived from London, where an IRA bomb had killed one person and injured around 20 at a tube station, only a few weeks before I left the country. I was stunned at the spectacle. These crazy-ass Finns were going to be sliced toast if anything bigger than a New Year's firecracker went off in there.
Of course, nothing DID explode, and the sweetest touch was that when we returned to our beers, we discovered that some cheeky sod - the bomb hoaxer, perhaps - had hung on until the very last minute and had gone around emptying the abandoned glasses down his thirsty throat. I laughed, and felt sort of warm and fuzzy inside: what a nice country, where people are still so naïve and innocent about such matters.
Finnish innocence was cruelly exposed in October 2002 when a rucksack went off and the skylights fell in at the Vantaa mall, and several people never made it home from the shops. It was exposed again in November 2007, and yet again last September. At the time, The Times Berlin correspondent Roger Boyes raised hackles hereabouts by describing the events in Jokela as "a very Finnish affair".
I wonder if he would stand by that assertion now, when it appears that at least on paper the two boys in Greater Manchester don't look THAT different from the one in Greater Helsinki. Yes, Pekka-Eric Auvinen followed through on his nihilist rantings and they did not, but disaffected adolescents with destructive dreams do not seem to be a peculiarly Finnish disease. Et in Arcadia super-ego?
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