Geoffrey Kirk reflects on the recent murders in Ipswich and what they tell us about contemporary morality

To those, like me, who supposed that the phrase ‘red light district of Ipswich must be something approaching an oxymoron, the two weeks before Christmas were both shocking and revelatory. We have, of course, got used to the idea that come Friday and Saturday nights our market towns are invaded by hordes of scantily-dressed young women and young men in smart-casual clothes from Next, whose expressed intention is to get drunk and laid, in that order, if the two are not incompatible. But the idea of an industry of single mothers feeding an addiction to crack cocaine by selling the only thing they still possess, their bodies – and all that in Ipswich – verges on the horrific.

But that is the way we live now.

Some unpalatable truths about our society have been laid bare.

The first is the extent of the drugs problem. Middle England is largely oblivious to the size and virulence of the drug sub-culture. As I remove litter from the churchyard I wear heavy gardening gloves to protect myself from the hypodermic needles which, in increasing numbers, lurk beneath the bushes. I returned home recently from a brief stay in the country to find that a murder had taken place on the forecourt of the church. It was, as the police chillingly put it, ‘drug related.’

Recent surveys here, in the United States and in Australia, have demonstrated a new world-view among Generation Y to which New Directions has already drawn attention. It is the so-called Happy Midi-narrative, a value system in which ‘happiness’ (however that is defined) is seen as the purpose of life. Hedonism, backed up by the unconditional love and forgiveness of family and friends, which this weltanschaung embraces is surely a lethal cocktail.

What happens when ‘happiness’ turns sour and friends and family desert or die? The cocoon of clubbing and cheap alcohol on which this fragile ‘happiness’ floats easily transposes into addiction to chemicals which can simulate it artificially. At a price both financial and personal.

The second is the ethical confusion into which, as a society, we have fallen. Media coverage of the murders has been a fascinating spectacle, varying from the censorious to the permissive. Some reports have stressed the profession of the five women: ‘Ipswich prostitutes’. Others have taken a more generous view: the euphemistic ‘working women’.

More than one news programme has interviewed representatives of the prostitutes’ union, who have sought to highlight the failures of the benefit system which drive women into this line of trade. There has been the predictable knee-jerk reaction from some MPs and liberal groups: legalize prostitution in order to accord a measure of protection to ‘working’ girls.

All this, though predictable, is hardly logical. It is not at all clear how turning into a regulated commodity what should not be a commodity at all will help matters; in the case of prostitution or prohibited drugs. Nor is it clear that the police and magistrates will have the time to regulate properly what would be likely to become a rapidly expanding market.

Then there is the question of the relationship of prostitution to the aims and ideals of contemporary feminism. Whilst a woman’s right to sell her body is obviously aligned to a ‘woman’s right to choose’ (the right to abort what her body has produced), it does not accord well with an attitude to pornography which sees it as a patriarchalist attack on the dignity of women, or with current attitudes to rape, where the woman is always an innocent party.

The attitudes to prostitution which have emerged from the Ipswich events are a confused amalgam. On the one hand there is a feminist-inspired notion of heroic women taking control of their lives (not unconnected to a romanticization of prostitution as ‘the oldest profession). On the other there is the equally feminist-inspired doctrine of woman as the eternal victim.

Last of all there is the contemporary fascination with murder. What was a mere incidental in the case histories of Sherlock Holmes has become the staple of detective fiction. Even the urbane and opera-loving Morse was faced with an improbable number of homicides for a smallish academic community. Fictional murders have come to dominate the airwaves. Four murders a week is par for the course for terrestrial channels. Ours is a society in which murder is the favourite crime and paedophilia the only unforgivable sin.

All this and more goes some way to explain the extraordinary reaction of press commentators to the events in Ipswich.

At the time of writing five women have been killed. But the pundits have been apparently less concerned about the enormity of that toll than about ideological in-fighting amongst themselves. Partisans of every political colour have been out on their bandwagons with slick explanations and quick solutions. None of them of course remotely Christian.

Christianity has been confined to Angela Tilby on ‘Thought for the Day’ and bizarre accounts of a Gladstone look-alike who walks the Ipswich streets paying to lecture young women on the evils of prostitution. Too late there will probably be some comment from the Church of England: an intellectually convoluted analysis from Rowan Williams and a snappy sound-bite from the Archbishop of York. But the sad truth is that Christian morality has been sidelined in all this and, by the majority, can be safely ignored. What was once the consensus view is now merely peripheral.

The paradox is that these murders possibly – probably, I almost wrote – spring from a distorted view of that traditional morality, and from frustration at the way it has been rejected, ridiculed and trodden under foot. In his own perverse way the perpetrator is likely to be a passionate moralist, seeking to make a point.

Or have I been watching too much ‘criminal profiling’ on television?