Faced with profound human wickedness, the most basic question of all is the one we rarely ask
The Ghislaine Maxwell case raises so many questions, and yet scarcely discussed is the one that perhaps matters most. Naturally, there’s huge interest in whether Maxwell, convicted this week of recruiting and grooming teenage girls for sex with her one-time boyfriend Jeffrey Epstein, will seek to reduce her sentence by naming names – opening up the pair’s notorious little black bookand telling prosecutors who else among the rich and powerful abused the vulnerable minors Maxwell trafficked for sex.
In Britain, much of that interest focuses on Epstein’s longtime pal, Prince Andrew, who was so close to the couple he invited them on visits to Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor: it’s lucky the prince doesn’t sweat, because if he did, he might be drenched now. So far he has refused to answer US investigators’ questions – not for his own sake, you understand, but according to multiple reports, to save the Queen from embarrassment. Because a 61-year-old man hiding behind his 95-year-old mother would not be in the least bit mortifying.
There are other questions, such as: how many others enabled the travelling child abuse ring that Epstein and Maxwell operated, turning a blind eye to what was surely obvious? Or: when else would the BBC respond to the conviction of a child sex offender by interviewing a brother of the offender who refused to accept the verdict of the court? And how come that Today programme interview with Ian Maxwell came so soon after the BBC had given a platform to one of Epstein’s lawyers, presenting him as if he were merely a neutral expert?
All those questions matter, and yet the one that preys on my mind is more timeless. It’s the question that arises in all such cases of human cruelty yet which one hesitates to ask, lest the inquiry seem naive: why?
The coverage of Maxwell has probed that a bit, suggesting for example that Ghislaine Maxwell was conditioned, as the daughter of the publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, to cater to the whims of a monstrous man, and simply transferred her allegiance, and her service, from one monster to another. Growing up surrounded by wealth and power, where the deference of officialdom was taken for granted, would have had its effect too. Ghislaine Maxwell may well have assumed that people like her and Epstein were granted a special kind of impunity, that they could break the laws that restrained the appetites of lesser mortals, because for most of her life that had indeed been the case.
And yet, both those answers are unsatisfying as explanations. There are plenty of abusers who did not grow up with either a Maxwell-style father or Maxwell-level wealth and, conversely, there are people whose upbringings were comparable to Ghislaine Maxwell’s but who did not go on to commit terrible crimes.
So the why question lingers, just as it did in sharper and more horrific form at least twice in the last month alone. December 2021 began with convictions for the father and stepmother of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in a case so appalling, I confess at the time I could barely read accounts of it. The six-year-old was subjected to a regime of sustained torture which was, incredibly, filmed by those who inflicted it. The little boy was made to stand in isolation for up to 14 hours at a time, without anything to eat or drink. He was beaten. To punish him, his father took the football shirts he loved and cut them to shreds in front of him. Perhaps most unbearable of all, the jury was shown footage of a weak and frail Arthur shortly before his death saying: “No one loves me. No one is going to feed me.”
When the man and woman guilty of destroying Arthur’s brief life were found guilty, there was revulsion, of course – and on Friday their sentences were referred to the court of appeal for being too lenient – but the public conversation moved without pause for breath to the policy implications. There was intense debate about the state of children’s services, about the damage done by austerity, about target-driven culture, about the recruitment and retention of social workers and so on. But what was missing was a much less sophisticated question. Why would two people do such terrible things to a defenceless child? How could a father cause such pain to his own flesh and blood?
There was a similar reflex 11 days later, following the verdicts in the equally soul-draining case of Star Hobson, a child, a baby really, who died at just 16 months, having been punched to death by her mother’s partner as her mother did nothing to save her. Once again, the pair filmed their months of cruelty against the little girl, apparently finding the videos amusing enough to send to friends. And yet the immediate talk was not of how two people could do such a thing, but of a local “child safeguarding practice review” and whether control of children’s services should belong with the local council or the Department for Education.
I understand the impulse to concentrate on these institutional, bureaucratic issues. The assumption is that there will always be people capable of horrendous brutality, that that fact will never change, and so the sensible focus of our attention should be on prevention. I get that. And yet the sheer speed with which we move to technocratic answers, barely even asking the harder human questions, begins to look like displacement activity. It’s as if we can’t bring ourselves to contemplate the puzzle of what humans are capable of, because we have no idea what we’d say.
Earlier, God-fearing generations did not find this so difficult. Nor do those who still have traditional faith. They have recourse to a vocabulary that includes the notion of evil and wickedness and that allows them to talk about it. But those words don’t trip so easily off the secular tongue.
Instead, we look for explanations in psychology or economics, assuming, to adapt Stephen Sondheim’s lyric, that if people are depraved it’s because they’re deprived, whether of love or money. That view persists. There was an echo of it in the closing argument from Maxwell’s defence lawyer, when she asked “why an Oxford-educated, proper English woman would suddenly agree to facilitate sex abuse of minors”. Only the poor or poorly educated behave badly.
We can see the flaw in such reasoning, even before you get to the insult it delivers to all those who endured great privation, emotional or material, without becoming abusers. And yet, the absence of easy answers does not give us a licence to stop asking hard questions. We need to be able to stare wicked acts and evil deeds in the face, rather than to comfort ourselves that they exist solely as functions of failed systems, errors that could be eliminated given the right policy tweak.
This need not be a bleak endeavour. I think of Julie K Brown, the Miami Herald reporter without whose fearless pursuit of Epstein’s crimes this week’s reckoning might never have come. I think of the courage of the victims, who kept up the fight for justice at great cost. Unfathomable evil is part of the human story, but so too is unimaginable good.
All Rights Reserved for Jonathan Freedland