MELBOURNE: The ‘random’ rape and murder of up-and-coming comedian Eurydice Dixon has shocked an entire nation. But can such gruesome and heinous crimes be prevented from happening again? Gary Johnston reports.
The city of Melbourne – and for that matter, the whole of Australia – has been rightly shocked over the past week, following the brutal rape and murder of young comedian Eurydice Dixon, in a random attack by a man, who all of the available evidence suggests was a complete stranger to his victim.
The public reaction to this ghastly crime has been enormous, for a number of perfectly valid reasons.
Firstly, the concept of any young person, but in particular a young woman, being slain, her body desecrated and abused, strikes at the very heart of our collective fears.
The profile of Eurydice Dixon is also a factor in terms of collective outrage. An aspiring comedian, heartbreaking footage of her final gig, the journey home from which ended with her dreadful demise, portrays a woman very much aware of the fears and concerns the modern world brings; Eurydice’s act being essentially an effort to characterise personal trepidation within the context of a stand-up routine.
Then there’s the troubling primordial, perhaps mythical aspect. In Greek myth, Eurydice is a tragic object of love beholden to the whims of men. According to the story, a fatal snake bite sends her to hell, but her husband Orpheus won’t let her go. He then uses his musical talents to bargain a deal with Hades and Persephone. The king and queen of the underworld tell Orpheus he may take Eurydice back to earth with him, and to the living, but only if he travels in front and doesn’t sneak a glance back at her along the way. But fearful that it is not really his beloved behind him, he does eventually look back. And Eurydice is lost forever.
This personalisation of tragedy has ignited and indeed combusted the issue of men’s violence toward women, although the polarisation of viewpoints seems to have already marginalised Ms Dixon as a blighted symbol of society’s ills and not as she – and her family – surely deserve, a victim worthy of respect, consideration and, perhaps, some privacy.
The final reason for the communal level of absorption and disgust is perhaps the least negative. Such crimes are relatively rare in Australia – though one is too many – and the reaction, easy to understand as it is, adds to the pervasive and fundamental effect crime – in reality the fear of crime – has on every aspect of society.
There appear to be two main responses to this awful, heartrending act of violence.
On social media in particular, many women have expressed the view that the murder is a microcosm of men’s – and indeed patriarchal society’s – attitudes to women, excoriating specifically the Victoria Police response which, with a degree of insensitivity at the very least, seemed to centre on women ‘taking responsibility for their own safety’, in a statement which many saw as passive, victim blaming.
Instead, it is said, men must take responsibility, responsibility for age old discriminatory attitudes which objectify and render women as chattel. Talk to your mates, to your sons, is the urge, inculcate in them the unacceptability of this way of thinking, teach them, force them if you have to, about the inalienable concept of respect.
It’s a perfectly sensible notion, of that there’s no doubt, but it’s a long term goal and not likely to achieve results any time soon; sad, but true.
The second public response, more predictable and less sustainable, emanating from such diverse sources as buffoon masquerading as comic, Peter Helliar, and rent-a-gob Senator Derryn Hinch who, despite spending some time behind bars himself could hardly be categorised as a crime lover, is much easier to refute.
The courts and by definition out-of-touch judges need to get tougher on perpetrators, this argument counters, with canards such as chemical castration and even the return of capital punishment mooted as righteous and effective responses.
Reactions such as these are vapid for a simple and cogent reason. They’re not effective.
In the first place, harsher penalties – and according the Victorian Crimes Act of 1991, a murder conviction attracts a maximum sentence of 25 years – do not, according to all available evidence, act as a successful deterrent. Most men – and it is men who commit the majority of crime and almost all violent crime – ignore the consequences whilst committing the act itself. There are a myriad of other factors in play at the time; poor self-control, latent anger, frustration, inadequacy, cock-eyed entitlement and skewed judgement amongst them, but the thought of being caught and a subsequent period of conviction and incarceration simply does not resonate with perpetrators. If only it did.
Dangerous criminals need to be locked up, of that, there is no argument. But, whilst they are imprisoned, at an average cost of more than $100,000 a year, per inmate, surely it makes sense to use that time to both understand the reasons for their crime and, if at all possible, develop strategies to effect their rehabilitation?
Australia is locking up more people than any time in its history and yet, recidivism rates, the likelihood of offenders returning to crime and, ultimately prison, are also rising, supplying us with an irrefutable truth.
Prison isn’t working.
Why? Well, that depends on who you ask. For some, mostly, but not exclusively, people with scant knowledge of the system, it’s because jails are too cosy. Veritable holiday camps, the narrative runs, with three square meals a day, satellite television and a level of comfort more akin to a five star hotel than a penal institution.
Make stir harder, they say, a lot more privation, a lot less mollycoddling. That’ll teach them.
Except, it doesn’t.
Jail teaches men to survive, to justify, to mark time and avoid responsibility. Australian prisons are, despite preconceptions, brutal establishments designed to contain, rather than confront. What they don’t do, is encourage men to take responsibility.
In that sense, jail, is in all truth, quite literally, a waste of time.
Halden Prison is a high security jail in Norway. It houses that country’s worst criminals, murderers and rapists, dangerous men who’ve committed abhorrent crimes, anathema to any civilised society.
But Halden has a library, a gym, a climbing wall, a pottery workshop. Each cell has a flatscreen television, an individual toilet and shower. In the high tech kitchen where the inmates prepare their own meals, there are sharp knives within easy reach. There is no razor wire, no electric fences, no armed snipers patrolling the exterior.
And yet, no one has ever tried to escape.
In Norway, loss of freedom is the punishment. The emphasis of the system is rehabilitation. The regime in Halden is unashamedly based on preparing inmates for a crime-free life on release. There are daily education classes including many focussing on gender politics, work, therapy and advanced medical support, including a strong emphasis on mental health services. Inmates are robustly encouraged to address their offending behaviour, but in an atmosphere of humanity and respect.
It’s jail, but not as we know it.
Too easy you say? A joke?
Halden’s reliance on rehabilitation achieves results. Norway’s two-year recidivism rate runs at 20 percent, compared to Australia, where New South Wales has a re-conviction rate of 74% for the same time period, rising to a horrifying 86% for Indigenous prisoners.
Those who favour brutality, bread and water and daily beatings might not like it, but the fact persists. It works.
Our system, doesn’t. Revenge is temporary. Rehabilitation, permanent.
If we want to eradicate crime from society – and in particular, violent crime, which brings misery and fear to everyone, directly connected or not, then perhaps we first need to acknowledge our obvious failures. Otherwise, we continue to make the same mistakes. With the same, inevitable, disastrous – and for the victims – tragic – consequences.
In his book, The House of the Dead, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote – “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
I’m not holding my breath, but the sooner Australia starts to consider this, the better, the safer, we will be. Of course, this will never – can never – provide Eurydice Dixon, her family and other tragic victims of crime, with justice, since retrospective justice is an impossible concept in every tangible sense.
If it however, delivers us a society based on true justice – respect, equality and, most importantly, freedom from fear – surely that’s what all of us, men and women, ultimately deserve.