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Lucy Letby and the exploitation of tragedy

Must everything be absorbed by the discourse?

Artillery Row

I don’t need to explain who Lucy Letby is. Her pale, unreadable face stares out from every newsstand in the country and just about every news site internationally. As serial killers go, she is a sensationalist’s dream: young, female, pretty and a nurse. Amidst the media circus, there needs to be a constant reminder that this is not a horror story someone dreamt up. The lives are real, as is the pain and suffering, and many stones will be left unturned. Letby’s motivation is unknown and likely never will be. This, arguably, is the most disturbing part of her profile.

I don’t blame people for falling prey to the addictive, morbid fascination that surrounds these extraordinary cases. We live in a time where murder and serial killers have been metaphorically pornified by true crime documentaries and podcasts. The tabloids and clickbait websites scream headlines designed to tantalise us into wanting to know every little detail, no matter how horrible. These heinous, near-unbelievable cases are so disturbing that we’re prompted into a frenzy of gossip as a sort of coping mechanism. It’s one of the more vulnerable parts of human nature.

Amidst such hysteria, legal reassurances are being hunted down. Both Sunak and Starmer have indicated they are in favour of making inquiries statutory rather than non-statutory, which would legally compel witnesses to give evidence. A more contentious law being pushed by Starmer would force criminals to face their victims and their families in court — Letby, like many, having chosen to remain in custody throughout her sentencing. Human rights protections, around to what extent guards can manhandle prisoners, make this a squeamish one to implicate.

Blame also offers solace. There is almost as much baying for blood towards NHS seniors who turned a blind eye or dismissed initial concerns about Letby, with many calling for jail sentences on their part, too. These alleged cover-ups and fatal incompetencies will be investigated and exposed in time — presently, no one wants to wait.

The sheer narcissism creates a thoroughly depressing reflection of our divided society

Some take their knee-jerk emotional responses a step further, though. If there was any doubt that in our current, deeply divisive times, nothing existed that could not be turned into a culture war issue, the reaction to the Letby case should dispel this. Amongst the most egregious responses is that of Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, who wrote on Twitter/X: “Lucy Letby exemplifies how ideology of Whiteness keeps Britain in a chokehold. They believed her tears/denials even though evidence said otherwise for no other reason than she’s White. A Black or Brown nurse would’ve been reported to the police immediately & sacked for suspicion.” After this stoked justified outrage, she followed it up with a crass false apology, stating: “Pls accept my regret at your lack of critical thinking skills, poor reading comprehension & being a despicable human who’s more outraged at truth of Whiteness ideology than at a baby murderer.” Shola, you’re a lawyer and public figure, not a sixteen-year-old on Tumblr circa 2015.

Gender ideologues couldn’t get in fast enough either, salivating to platform their own agenda on the altar of murdered infants. Comedian and out-and-proud ally Janey Godley waited approximately twenty minutes after Letby’s verdict was handed down before quipping, “Not a drag queen or trans person” in a now-deleted quote tweet. Former newscaster India Willoughby crowed, “To all the cis white terfs who’ve shown me news stories of bad trans people and said: ‘This is why trans people should be kept away from children’ #LucyLetby.” On the right, there have been any number of anti-abortion advocates who’ve eagerly jumped at the chance to condemn what they see as hypocrisy on the part of pro-choice people horrified by Letby’s crimes. Many have claimed every woman who has ever terminated a pregnancy at any stage deserves Letby’s life sentence as well.

The gross distastefulness of these warped appropriations of other people’s terrible losses speaks for itself. To anyone of reasonable intelligence, the ethical and logical fallacies within these comparisons should also be evident (Tom Slater has already written a piece in Spiked unpicking Mos-Shogbamimu’s misplaced, and enormously mistimed, racial politics). Part of me is tempted to lay out rebuttals to Godley, Willoughby and the gloating pro-lifers here, but I will refrain because it undermines the greater point: This isn’t about you or your cause.

If I’m being generous, these responses could be seen as a more complex symptom of the collective shock that leads us to sensationalise and analyse the killer, fruitlessly trying to locate irreversible occurrences that could have led to a different outcome. Some point the finger outwardly because it’s easier than thinking about the babies and their grieving parents. Others find comfort gazing inwardly, filtering the tragedy through their personal lens, the way they do with every other social problem. Nonetheless, the sheer narcissism creates a thoroughly depressing reflection of our politically divided society and the self-absorbed impulses normalised by social media.

Seven children are dead; at least another six struggling through life with irreversible injuries and disabilities. As much as it goes against human nature and online behavioural norms, particularly those blindsided by political agendas, if — God forbid — there’s a next time, let’s try for a moment of silence.

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