A mangled Christmas message

John Roughan reckons he's found religion but he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas

I'm old enough to remember childhood games that were often based around war. Whether we were Allied soldiers against the Nazis, cowboys bringing down Indians or humans fending off alien hordes, there was always a clear distinction between goodies and baddies.

As I hear the debate around law and order in this country, I'm always amazed at how many people still view the world in that simplistic manner. The politicians, talk-back hosts and columnists permit little grey to blur the stark lines they draw between black and white, them and us, offender and victim.

So I was intrigued by John Roughan's column in this Saturday's Weekend Herald, in which my former colleague drew on the spirit of Christmas to find a whole can of grey with which to paint the trial and conviction of Bruce Emery, the man who killed 15 year-old tagger Pihema Cameron.

Roughan wrote that, "Every Christmas I find religion. That is to say, a spirit of goodness in the air..." When he read Cameron's mother Leanne was relieved Emery would stay in prison on remand over Christmas, Roughan wrote that "the spirit of Christmas dimmed."

His column was indicative of the empathy that so many New Zealanders seem to have found for Emery. I don't begrudge Emery and his family that compassion one bit, but why is it offered to this particular criminal when, as a society, we are typically so quick to lengthen sentences, build more prisons, and condemn and damn offenders?

We all suspect the reason, and Roughan admits it. Emery is someone like him, someone he can understand. In a surprising lack of charity given the seasonal overtures of his column, he turns on Cameron's mother, asking whether the "poor woman" needed reminding that it was her son and his companion who were the "instigators of what happened".

"'Tagging' might not justify Emery's armed response but it makes his fury completely explicable. Who could honestly say they couldn't imagine doing the same thing if they were to come across a couple of youths deliberately defacing their property?

I know, though, that if I had done what Emery did I would never get over it. A jail term would be superfluous.

It is sad that the dead boy's mother feels Emery hasn't suffered enough."

This is where the compassion of middle- and upper-class New Zealanders – those who own and dominate the public and media discourse in this country – comes from. Emery is familiar to them. He's pakeha, middle-class, middle-aged and male. And he's fed up with crime. Roughan, as a well-heeled property owner, can understand the outrage felt when someone damages something you've worked so hard to earn. He understands the provocation and can put himself in Emery's shoes. Because Emery is similar to him, he's sure Emery must feel the sort of guilt that he could imagine feeling were he in the same position.

How different it is when it comes to all the young, brown men who dominate our violent crime statistics; or who have a few drinks then go out tagging. I don't pretend to know Roughan's views on this, but in much of the public debate about crime these days, such offenders are "them", the other, and seem beyond our comprehension. And as such, are beyond our compassion.

Most violent offenders aren't provoked by a crime against property. But they are provoked. They might be provoked by drink and other addictions; by anger that they've never learnt to control; by a misplaced sense of loyalty to a gang brother; by greed born of poverty or hopelessness or some other deep sense of lacking that dominates their life; or by insecurities and failures so deep they can't explain them to themselves, let alone other people.

And like Emery, most violent offenders have been victims of crime as well as perpetrators. Abused by parents or spouses, beaten by relatives, bullied by who knows who, and robbed by mates. Few are the psychopaths and assassins we read about in our crime novels; the baddies. Because they are so unlike us, we label them thugs, or worse, animals. We assume they don't lie awake at night grieving over what they've done. Yet most violent offending, as with Emery's, erupts out of a swamp of frustration, bad choices, panic and anger.

The flip side is that Emery is also excused to some degree. When a damaged young man attacks someone, we shake our heads at the lack of discipline, ask where the self-responsibility is and vote for a government that promises us army-style boot camps for young offenders. But when someone like us offends, suddenly we can find reasons and make excuses. Roughan doesn't ask why Emery didn't take responsibility for his decision to pick up a knife and run more than 100m down the street after the tagger. Instead, he blames the brown kid for being "the instigator".

Roughan, as fine a journalist as he is, knows how much power comes from where you choose to start a story. In Emery's defence, Roughan starts the story with Cameron's tagging. If he had chosen to start the story with Emery's decision to pick up the knife, it would be a very different kind of tale. Our sympathies would lie elsewhere.

Yet it seems to me that most crime reporting in this country begins the story too late in the piece. Most offenders never get the benefit of the doubt Emery has received because we don't bother to learn the part of the story that came before. The provocation. The bit early on when the perpetrator was the victim.

Consider the death of Nia Glassie, and how rightly appalled we all were at the behaviour of Wiremu and Michael Curtis and Nia's mother, Lisa Kuka. But what if we start the story earlier, with Nia's father Glassie Glassie's decision to cheat on his wife and young child by starting an affair with another woman? What if we start the story with Wiremu and Michael's upbringing at the hands of their father, William Curtis, who was earlier this month also found guilty of assaulting the toddler? And what about William's parents?

Who then, is the instigator? When Roughan writes of his sorrow that Leanne Cameron doesn't feel "Emery hasn't suffered enough", is he willing to extend the same mercy to the pathetic Curtis boys?

We as a society claim the right to punish those who take decisions that harm, even kill, others. Emery took such a decision, and so is being punished. Roughan is wrong to suggest that somehow in a case like this a prison sentence is "superfluous". If he would extend that mercy to Emery, he must to all killers, and that is something society would not allow.

Emery deserves no more sympathy than any other offender who, out of victim-hood and anger, has chosen violence as his or her response.

But he also deserves no less sympathy. He was a victim. He made one bad choice, but that does not make him "a baddie". And that perhaps is where we might find something of the message of Christmas: that we are all flawed individuals in need of the gift of mercy.

To Roughan's credit, he gets there in the end. Well, almost. He concludes:

Nobody was entirely guilty or innocent, all were angry, frightened. They were only human.

The problem with Roughan's example of mercy is that it is too easy. Compassion for someone who looks like us is a doddle. If we are to follow the truth of Roughan's message where it leads, we have to be willing to extend that compassion to the addict, the gang member, the abused, and the simply angry. I am not making a bleeding heart case that "society" alone is to blame for crime. We all must take responsibility for our choices. We know that those choices breed consequences and people should pay a price when they harm others.

But for Roughan to really "find religion" he needs to get past the "sweet music, the Santas, the sleighs, the fairy lights, and the phony snow." The Christmas story is about a child born into poverty and disgrace, persecuted by the powers of the day. Perhaps most importantly, in terms of this question, it's about loving the unlovable and extending the same kindness to a down-trodden stranger that you would offer to your nearest and dearest.

When we're singing those carols on Christmas Eve we should remember the blessings are for "all the dear children", the peace and goodwill for "all men" (and women), and the rejoicing is for "all ye nations".