The list of cruel things that were done to little Daniel Pelka is a savage scar on our collective self-image today. There is no argument about this: what happened to him was so far beyond the pale that outraged horror is the only acceptable reaction.
And yet, as everyone says who tries to be serious about this, it has happened before and it will happen again.
I have little to add to the debate about how we might stop it happening again: more and assiduous vigilance all round and greater confidence in acting on our worst fears seem to me to be necessary. How to make this happen is a question both for relevant professionals and ordinary citizens. Yes, for everyone, not just ‘them’. If neighbourhoods are populated with good neighbours such excesses must surely be less likely.
The tragedy has also prompted me to think about cruelty. It’s something we don’t think about enough, and when we do we often think around it, not about it. Judith Shaklar makes this point in her book ‘Ordinary Vices’.
That book begins with a chapter entitled ‘Putting Cruelty First’, which, she says, many liberal and humane people would do if asked to rank the worst vices. It is certainly number one on her list. Number two is hypocrisy.
Shalklar makes the pont – which I found quite chilling – that in Christian thinking cruelty is not named as a vice. It is not even on the traditional list of ‘deadly sins’, never mind at the top of the list. No, at the top of that list comes ‘pride’. And, as she points out, Christian depictions of hell are replete with images and descriptions of cruelty. Her implication is that the images suggest there are circumstances which justify physical cruelty.
Shaklar argues that if we want to take cruelty seriously we have to step aside from the great traditions of thought, including all faiths, for they have not been sufficiently against cruelty.
I find this very challenging, finding no mandate for being cruel in my own faith.
However, there is evidence enough that Christian people can be cruel. They can abuse their power, they can seek their own pleasure at the expense of others, they can willfully harm and deliberately humiliate, they can take the desire to control others to extremes.
Shaklar is acute about the evil of what she calls ‘moral cruelty’ as opposed to the physical sort. She describes it as, ‘deliberate and persistent humiliation, so that the victim can eventually trust neither himself nor anyone else’. This takes many forms. It suggests that a culture high on cruelty will be low on trust. I wonder: can we connect the low levels of trust that are part of our culture today to an ongoing streak of cruelty and ridicule in public and private life.
When we think of the evil of cruelty today we should of course let our hearts be broken by the thought of innocent bodily suffering of an emaciated, imprisoned child forced to eat salt, bruised and burnt and eventually beaten to death. We should imagine his tears, his despair, his loneliness, his fear, and the collapse of all human hope and joy that he must have experienced. We should do this not to be morbid or to gee ourselves into vigilante anger, but so that we can have a clear sense of the evil of evil.
But what we cannot do is allow ourselves the luxury of saying to ourselves, ‘There, now we know what cruelty is. It’s what those wicked people did to that poor child.’ It is of course that, but cruelty is far more common than that outrage. And if we are to live well we must seek to be vigilant regarding cruelty wherever we see it and however we ourselves perpetrate it, and with whatever degree of subtlety. Much cruelty has some sort of smile on its face.
Cruelty is evil. But it is also more common than we usually recognise. There is much to lament this day. And it includes the common cruelty we often take for granted, as well as the extreme sort which so rightly outrages us.