July 12, 2008

Wrong when mob rules centre stage even in the face of evil

The Canberra Times

Dennis Ferguson looks every bit the monster he is. Balding on top, greasy hair strands down his neck, thick glasses and beady eyes. In fact more than beady, they’re nasty eyes. His mouth is hard set and ready to snarl. One community website even has a photo of him with his tongue hanging out.

There’s no doubting Ferguson – or ”Fergo” as the lynch mob call him – looks like he’s straight from central casting, where the character role is to portray the ugly face of evil.

Now, if this descriptor is sounding a bit tough, it’s meant to. Ferguson is a nasty piece of work. This week he was dubbed Australia’s ”most notorious paedophile” and not without good reason.

Ferguson was convicted of the kidnap and rape of three children back in 1989. So horrible were his actions of repeatedly assaulting the children over a period of three days, and so unremorseful was Ferguson for his crime, that the sentencing judge said the prospect of his rehabilitation was ”nil”. And the judge was right.

Once out of prison, Ferguson went on the prowl again. Within three years of being released he was back behind bars, charged with the indecent assault of a five-year-old girl. But possibly he may never face court over that crime.

Last week Ferguson was released after Brisbane District Court Judge Hugh Botting granted a permanent stay on the proceedings arguing that the crown case was ”tenuous” and that pre-trial publicity about Ferguson’s past convictions would make it difficult to find an objective jury.

So, his new neighbours have put him on trial instead. And what a spectacle it has been.

If we were to take away the loud hailers, the packets of fags and folding chairs; and exchange the trackies and fleecy zip-ups with sack cloth and hoods, we’d be transported right back to the Middle Ages.

Baying for blood and with an appetite for violence, the large mob that has gathered outside the Queensland property in which Ferguson has bunkered down, is ripe for an execution.

Early in the week, a wire fence and wall of armed police stopped the angry crowd from getting hold of Ferguson, so the mob burnt a life- sized effigy of him instead. ”Burn Dennis Burn!” they chanted. Mothers, fathers, kids, grandparents, and even a few family pet dogs joined the rabble. When one elderly woman who looked like she was camping for the night was asked what she was doing there, she was emphatic, ”Guarding me grandchildren.” And sure enough, she and her family looked like they were tucking in for a night of vigilante camaraderie.

One of the loudest among the protesters, a bloke who identified himself to the local Gold Coast Bulletin as ”JB” tried to encourage his young son to scream through the loud speaker. When the kid didn’t, his dad showed him how, ”You have five seconds to come out here Fergo and get run over by a car.”

One can only wonder what JB’s son was learning from all this. And one can only wonder too what all the other children dragged into this ugly scene might be making of it.

This insatiable adult lust for a lynching has exceeded anything we’ve scene on our television news for a long time.

Just why this rural community has reached such a fever pitch, supposedly over the protection of children, is cause for serious concern.

On Tuesday night, a brave Queensland Police Minister, Judy Spence, with a somewhat shaky voice, addressed a crowd of about a thousand furious locals at a public meeting in Carbrook, not far from where Ferguson is housed. They screamed, chanted and pumped their fists in the air.

The village mob mentality was threatening and menacing, but perhaps the worst of it was seen in the children present. One teenage girl, probably aged about 13, screeched at Spence with such venom, that she looked close to an emotional collapse. ”How dare you say that,” she screamed, in response to Spence’s suggestion that some of the vigilantes were acting like ”thugs”. The girl then buckled over in howling tears.

Why anyone would want to take their kids to such a meeting, and encourage them to scream abuse is deeply worrying.

But even more worrying is the hypocrisy of this moral outrage directed at the Government, the police and the judiciary.

Ferguson is free right now because it’s been deemed he can’t get a fair trial. That claim is the subject of appeal by Queensland Attorney- General Kerry Shine, and might possibly see Ferguson back in jail. But in the meantime, a fundamental tenant of democracy has been upheld. The man – who has served jail time and subsequently been released from remand – is free. And the police force is protecting his right as a civilian to remain free.

For that we should be grateful, as it demonstrates a democratic system working as it should.

It’s a pity our civil society isn’t working just as well.

The disgraceful lack of adult dignity among the screaming, baying, moronic mob that is threatening to kill Ferguson, sets an appalling example to the children they claim to care about.

These rabble-rousers would probably be the very people to bellow loudest if their own constitutional rights weren’t upheld, and their civil liberties were taken away.

But within the din outside Ferguson’s temporary home this week, there was one small gesture toward restoring calm and common sense. A grandmother told a local reporter she was so upset by the scenes she’d seen on television that she’d come to the protest site to say her piece: ”This man is human and has a story and he has to face himself every day.”

It was a sweet sentiment, but no one was listening.


Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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