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Terrible crimes can affect the public in different ways.
Nanjing Night Net

IN THE same week Jill Meagher went missing, three elderly men, one of them aged 85, were bashed at Pakenham railway station. One of the men was glassed and pushed backward onto the tracks. The incident prompted a small story in the local paper.

Horrible things happen to people every day, and if they turn up dead the response can range from a small, even cryptic news report to outraged war-sized headlines.

Why do some crimes resonate more powerfully through the community than others? What really prompted 30,000 people to march down Sydney Road last week? Or for countless others to bring flowers and candles and gifts to various vigil sites?

The rotten fate of Jill Meagher was something profoundly felt by people who didn’t know her.

The organisers of the march couched the event in gentle terms, whereby the aim was to show support for ”peace, hope, non-violence and solidarity with all women”.

But only a few people carried those signs. Social scientists interviewed by The Sunday Age suggest something more primal was sparked by Jill Meagher’s death – as it was sparked previously by the Mr Cruel abductions and rapes of young girls, by Paul Denyer’s stalking and murdering young women, and in 1921 when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke was raped, murdered and her body abandoned in a Melbourne alley. In that instance, a man was hastily and probably wrongly tried and hanged by a city gone mad with fury and fear.

Social analyst David Chalke said fear – heightened by identification with the victim – was the main motivation that led 30,000 people to march. ”Everybody seems to know that most murders are committed by people known to the victim. We have been talked out of stranger danger. And then up pops this evil spirit in the dark, this predator, and we go right back to that primeval fear.”

Mr Chalke makes the point that Jill Meagher – like the victims of Mr Cruel or Paul Denyer – was not one of life’s losers, she wasn’t a chronic victim. Her life was going well, she was well liked and apparently blessed with a happy nature.

”We wouldn’t have responded the same way if she’d been ugly or mad or a druggie. Or a victim of domestic abuse. Yes, Jill was pretty, but more importantly she was normal and ordinary. The girl next door. The kind of girl who could be your sister or daughter. And randomly colliding into this ordinary life was this other dark world. Suddenly, it could have been me or you.”

Dr Karen Jones is a moral philosopher at the University of Melbourne who has written on trust and terror. She says victims of sexual assault will initially take some of the responsibility for their attack because in doing so ”they gain some sense of control”.

They will then ”economise their trust” in a different way to avoid getting hurt again.

Dr Jones says: ”When something really random happens, you lose even this illusion of control and the inevitable fact of your vulnerability hits you in the face. That’s why these attacks, though statistically uncommon, terrify us and why their effects magnify. This magnification is the principle behind a successful terrorist campaign.”

Dr Jones says she’s been tracking the Meagher coverage and notes the ”it could have been me” sentiments echo post-September 11 comments.

Anthropologist Stephen Juan sees the outpouring of community support ”in the form of a large parade that was mostly spontaneous indicates a sincere desire on the part of the community to recover from the shock, reaffirm its values and re-establish its image of itself”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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