Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

The Suffolk strangler: Are we being unfair to the victims

From the distance of Northern Ireland, the horrific murders in Ipswich seem almost like a television crime drama. We tune in every night for the latest dark instalment.

So much of it is uncannily familiar from fictional murder thrillers ¿ the scenes of crime, the hastily arranged police press conference, the shots of darkened city streets, the television news now going live to our reporter on the spot ¿

But this isn't fiction. It's real.

And if anything has driven home the reality and the humanity behind the headlines this week, it's been that tragic photo montage in all the newspapers of the young victims of the Suffolk Strangler.

In every single report these women are described as prostitutes.

True, we have come a long, long way from the days of coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, when one of his victims who wasn't a prostitute was described as "one of his innocent victims".

But is it really necessary, I've been asked this week, for the media to incessantly flag up the fact that the Ipswich women were all prostitutes?

If they were office workers after all, would we be likely to have reports informing us that "another office worker has been found murdered"?

The short answer is, actually, yes - if, as is the case here, the women were being targeted solely on account of their day job.

But prostitution isn't just a day job, of course.

It's a lifestyle, and a sordid, bleak lifestyle that most of us have difficulty comprehending.

The very word prostitute conjures up the traditional image of hard-faced harridans. But those photographs of the victims of the Suffolk Strangler show a different reality.

The faces smiling from our newspapers this week were young and pretty and seemingly able and confident.

They were the faces, you might have thought, of girls who could have had the whole world at their feet.

You would have thought wrong.

What drove or tempted these young women on to the streets?

The answer in so many cases appears to have been drugs.

One of the murder victims had earlier given an interview where she spoke of her fears about the killer. She pointed out, however, that she needed to keep working in order to feed her habit.

That habit, a friend revealed this week, was costing her in the region of £500 a day.

Even the fear of falling prey to a madman who murders and mutilates wasn't enough to stop her, so desperate had she become.

In some reports, we're told, the same girl had a "premonition" that she'd be dead by 25.

But it wasn't a premonition, simply logical deduction. For all her problems, the poor girl was savvy enough to grasp the odds of her surviving to old age.

Which brings us back to who or what killed her.

Inevitably, the Suffolk Strangler has made headlines because of the shocking scale of his carnage, the suffering he has created.

But he's not the only killer operating in the same area.

What about the drug dealers?

What about those who in order to make a tidy profit for themselves, lay waste to so many young lives?

Their toll has been no less shocking, their impact no less devastating. It's just that their activities are seen as less headline-grabbing.

From the distance of Northern Ireland we might feel that the Ipswich murders are remote to our lives - no more real than a television show.

But the bleak factors that have built towards this horrific story are present in all our towns and cities.

Young lives are being broken and blighted by drugs.

Young women, who in a different circumstance could so easily have a future, are gambling everything in order to feed their desperation.

The Suffolk Strangler is truly a monster.

An evil murderer who will stalk the nightmares of the nation for many, many years to come.

We should remember though that in some ways he is only the headline act.

There are other constant killers out there. The detectives hunting the Suffolk Strangler are said, understandably enough, to be "emotionally devastated" by the case.

An extra 200 officers have been drafted in to help them, the Suffolk police being one of the smallest forces in the country.

Police training may prepare an officer for many things.

But what training could possibly prepare a human being for carnage on this scale?

It's a situation that surely has parallels with the experience of many, many police officers in Northern Ireland.

Down through the years of the Troubles many of them, too, were exposed (on an even more regular basis) to "emotionally devastating" murders.

They were stretched to the very limit, but extra manpower resources were not an option.

Particularly in the early years, they faced an onslaught of horror unprecedented in both scale and intensity.

"Emotionally devastating" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Yet today their critics pick over their efforts, judging them as if they were operating back then with the full resources, back-up and advantages of 21st century policing.

There's no sense of context.

No acknowledgement of the truly horrific and dangerous circumstances in which those men and women were operating.

The Suffolk police have signalled the strain which their officers are already under in Ipswich.

It's a reminder that, while we sometimes we expect police officers to do super-human things, we shouldn't forget the exceptional conditions they are working in - or the fact that they are still human beings.

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