The trial in January of Marie Therese Kouao and her lover, Carl Manning, for the murder of their eight-year-old ward, Anna Climbie, caused a sensation in England: not merely because the pathologist who performed the post-mortem on the child said in court that it was the worst case of child abuse he had ever seen, but because of the depths of incompetence and pusillanimity it revealed among the public servants charged with detecting, preventing, and responding to such abuse.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the competence of our public servants has declined along with our nation's general level of education; but in this case, the authorities conducted themselves with so stunning a lack of common sense that something more must account for it than mere ignorance. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson slightly, such stupidity is not in nature. It has to be worked for or achieved. As usual, one must look to the baleful influence of mistaken ideas to explain it.
Anna Climbie died of hypothermia in February, 1999. Her body after death showed 128 marks of violence, inflicted with leather belts, metal coat hangers, a bicycle chain, and a hammer. She was burned with cigarettes and scalded with hot water. Her fingers were cut with razors. For six months, she had been made to sleep in a black plastic garbage bag (in place of clothes) in a bathtub: sometimes she had been left in cold water, bound hand and foot, for 24 hours. She was emaciated to the point of starvation; her legs were so rigidly flexed that when she was admitted to the hospital the day before her death, they could not be straightened.
It was not as if there had been no warnings of Anna's terrible fate. She was admitted to the hospital twice during the months before she died; doctors alerted the social service authorities to the abuse she was suffering at least six times; and the police also were alerted more than once. No one did anything whatsoever.
Marie Therese Kouao came originally from the Ivory Coast, though she was a French citizen and lived in France for most of her life. She would return to the Ivory Coast from time to time to persuade relatives there to hand over their children to her, so that she could bring them up in Europe, assuring them a brighter future than West Africa offered, she said. She claimed to have a highly paid job at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
She used the children successively entrusted to her care to claim benefits from the welfare system, first in France and then in England. She moved to England with Anna, because the French authorities were demanding the reimbursement of $3,000 of benefits to which she had not been entitled. On her arrival in England, she was at once granted benefits worth, coincidentally, a further $3,000.
When the benefits ran out, she met the driver of a bus in which she traveled, a strange and isolated young West Indian called Carl Manning. He was almost autistic, a social misfit, whose main interests were bus routes and Internet pornography. She moved in with him at once.
It is possible that they then developed together the strange psychiatric condition known as folie à deux first described by two French psychiatrists in the nineteenth century. In this condition, two people who are mutually dependent and in unusually close association come to share the same delusion. Usually, the person with the stronger character and greater intelligence is the originator of the delusion, which he or she believes with unshakable conviction; the other, weaker and less intelligent, character goes along with it, because he or she has not the strength to resist. When the weaker character is separated from the stronger, he or she ceases to believe in the delusion.
Kouaothe stronger character of the two by farneeded Manning, because he had an apartment, and she had nowhere else to stay; Manning needed Kouao, because she was the only woman, other than a prostitute, with whom he had ever had a sexual relationship. When Kouao began to believe that Anna was possessed by the devil, Manning accepted what she said and joined in her efforts to abuse Satan out of Anna. They took her to several fundamentalist churches, whose pastors performed exorcisms: indeed, on the very day before Anna's death, it was the taxi driver who was taking them to one such church for an exorcism who noticed that Anna was scarcely conscious, and who insisted upon taking her to an ambulance station, from whence she was taken to the hospital in which she died.
The conduct of the two defendants in court supports the diagnosis of folie à deux. Manning was subdued and accepted his guilt. Kouao, however, kept a Bible in her hand always and frequently had to be removed from the dock because of her religious outbursts. She behaved as if truly mad.
Two distant relatives of Kouao's who lived in England testified that they drew the attention of the welfare authorities to Anna's condition. Nothing happened. A babysitter who looked after Anna when Kouao found work was so worried by her general condition, her incontinence of urine, and the marks on her skin, that she took her to a hospital. There, Kouao managed to persuade an experienced doctor that Anna's main problem was scabies, from which everything else about her followed. Kouao claimed that the marks on her skin were the result of her own scratching to relieve the irritation of scabies.
Nine days later, however, Kouao herself took Anna to another hospital. There she claimed that the scalds from hot water to the child's head had been caused by Anna's having poured the water over herself in her frantic attempts to relieve the itching of scabies. This time, however, the doctors and nurses were not deceived. Not only did they note her injuries, but also her state of malnutrition and the gross discrepancy between the rags she was wearing and the immaculate smartness of the woman they assumed to be her mother. She ate ravenously, as if unaccustomed to plentiful foodas indeed she was. Hospital staff noted that she became incontinent at the prospect of this woman's visits to the hospital, and a nurse reported that she stood at attention and trembled when Kouao arrived.
The doctor in charge of the case duly informed the social worker and the police of her well-founded suspicions. The social worker and the policewoman deputed to the case, both of them black themselves, dismissed these suspicions out of hand, however, without proper investigation, once again believing Kouao's account of the casenamely that Anna had scabies, from which everything else followed. The social worker and the policewoman neither looked at the child themselves nor at the hospital photographs of the child's condition. They insisted that Anna be released back into the care (if that is quite the word) of Kouaothe social worker explaining Anna's evident fear of Kouao as a manifestation of the deep respect in which Afro-Caribbean children hold their elders and betters. The fact that the Ivory Coast is in West Africa, not the West Indies, did not occur to the social worker, whose multiculturalism obviously consisted of the most rigid stereotypes.
On discovering that Anna had been returned to Kouao, the doctor in charge of the case wrote twice to express her grave concern about the child's safety to the welfare authorities, who dispatched the same social worker to Manning's apartment, which she found cramped but clean. That was all she saw fit to comment upon. By then, Anna was kept in the bathtub at night and beaten regularly, with (among other things) a hammer to the toes. Manning was writing in his diary that Anna's injuries were self-inflicted, a consequence of her "witchcraft."
The social worker and the policewoman never went back. They feebly pleaded fear of catching scabies from Anna. Finally, Kouao visited the social worker and claimed that Manning was sexually abusing Anna, withdrawing the claim soon afterward. The social worker and the policewoman assumed that the claim was just a ploy on Kouao's part to obtain more spacious accommodation for herself, and their investigations evidently did not involve examining Anna.
Two months later, Anna was dead.
The case naturally provoked a lot of commentary, much of it beside the point. The social worker and the policewoman had been made into scapegoats, correspondents to the Guardianthe great organ of left-liberal thinking in Britainsuggested; the real problem was a lack of resources: social workers were too overworked and poorly paid to do their job properly. It is amazing how anything can be turned these days into a pay claim.
A former social worker, however, wrote to the Guardian and suggested that ideology, particularly in the training of social workers, was the fundamental problem. Here, of course, he went to the heart of the matter. The theme of race, and official attitudes toward it, ran through the Anna Climbie case like a threnody.
So rapidly has political correctness pervaded our institutions that today virtually no one can keep a clear head about race. The institutions of social welfare are concerned to the point of obsession with race. Official anti-racism has given to racial questions a cardinal importance that they never had before. Welfare agencies divide people into racial groups for statistical purposes with a punctiliousness I have not experienced since I lived, briefly, in apartheid South Africa a quarter of a century ago. It is no longer possible, or even thought desirable, for people involved in welfare services to do their best on a case-by-case basis, without (as far as is humanly feasible) racial bias: indeed, not long ago I received an invitation from my hospital to participate in a race-awareness course, which was based upon the assumption that the worst and most dangerous kind of racist was the doctor who deluded himself that he treated all patients equally, to the best of his ability. At least the racial awareness course was not (yet) compulsory: a lawyer friend of mine, elevated recently to the bench, was obliged to go through one such exercise for newly appointed judges, and was holed up for a weekend in a wretched provincial hotel with accusatory representatives of every major "community." Come the final dinner, a Muslim representative refused to sit next to one of the newly appointed judges because he was Jewish.
The outcome of the Anna Climbie case would almost certainly not have been different had the policeman and the social worker at its center been white, but the reasons for the outcome would have been slightly different. As blacks who represented authorityin a society in which all serious thinkers believe oppressed Black to be in permanent struggle with oppressing Whitethese functionaries had joined forces with the aggressor, at least in the minds of those who believe in such simple-minded dichotomies. Under the circumstances, it would hardly be surprising if they exhibited, when dealing with other black people, a reluctance to enforce regulations with vigor, for fear of appearing to be Uncle Toms, doing the white man's work for him. In a world divided into Them and Us (and it would have been difficult, given the temper of the times, for the social worker and the policewoman to have escaped this way of thinking altogether), We are indissolubly united against Them: therefore, if one of us treats another one of us badly, it is a scandal that we must conceal for our own collective good. A black African friend of mine, who had been a refugee in Zambia, once published an article in which he exposed the corruption of the regime there. His African friends told him that, while nothing he said in the article was untrue, he should not have published it, because it exposed Africa's dirty linen to the racist gaze of Europeans.
In other words, the social worker and the policewoman believed Marie Therese Kouao because they wanted to avoid having to take action against a black woman, for fear of appearing too "white" in the eyes of other blacks. Thus, they resorted to the preposterous rationalizations that the Ivory Coast is an island in the West Indies and that West Indian children stand at attention when their mothers visit them in the hospital.
The white doctor who was taken in by Kouao's ridiculous story of scabies (a diagnosis contradicted both by a dermatologist at the time and at post-mortem) was afraid to appear too harsh in her assessment of Kouao, to avoid the accusation, so easily made in these times of easy outrage, of being a racist. Had she not affected to believe Kouao, she would have had to take action to protect Anna, at the risk of Kouao's accusing her of being racially motivated. And since (to quote another memo from my hospital) "racial harassment is that action which is perceived by the victim to be such," it seemed safer to leave Kouao to her coat hangers, hammers, boiling water, and so forth. It is for this reason, also, that the outcome of the case would have been no different had the social worker and the policewoman been white: their fears would have been different from those of their black colleagues, but the ultimate effects of those fears would have been the same.
Kouao, Manning, and Anna Climbie were treated not as individual human beings but as members of a collectivity: a purely theoretical collectivity, moreover, whose correspondence to reality was extremely slight. No out-and-out racist could have suggested a less flattering picture of the relations between black children and black adults than that which the social worker and the policewoman appeared to accept as normal in the case of Kouao and Anna Climbie. And had the first doctor, the social worker, and the policewoman been less fixated on the problem of race and more concerned to do their best on a case-by-case basis, Anna Climbie would still have been alive, and Kouao and Manning would be spending less of their lives in prison.
I have seen such "racial awareness"the belief that racial considerations trump all othersoften enough. A little while ago I was asked to stand in for a doctor who was going on prolonged leave and who was well known for his ideological sympathy for blacks of Jamaican origin. For him, the high rates both of imprisonment and psychosis of young Jamaican males are evidence of what has come to be known in England, since a notorious official report into the conduct of London's Metropolitan Police, as "institutionalized racism."
A nurse asked me to visit one of the doctor's patients, a young black man living in a terraced house near the hospital. He had a long history of psychosis and was refusing to take his medication. I read his hospital notes and went to his house.
When I arrived, his next-door neighbor, a middle-aged black man, said, "Doctor, you've got to do something; otherwise someone's going to be killed." The young man, floridly mad, believed that he had been cheated by his family of an inheritance that would have made him extremely rich.
Only later did I learn of this young man's history of violence. The last time the doctor for whom I was standing in visited the home, the young man chased him away, wielding a machete. The young man had attacked several of his relatives and had driven his mother out of the house, which she owned. She had been obliged by his threats to seek accommodation elsewhere.
None of his propensity to violence, not even the incident with the machete, appeared in the medical notes. The doctor felt that to record the incidents would "stigmatize" the patient and add to the harm he chronically suffered as a member of an already stigmatized group. Furthermore, to treat him against his will for his dangerous madnesswhich English law permitswould simply be to swell the already excessive numbers of young black men requiring such compulsory treatment for psychoses caused (my colleague would say) by English racism.
No such delicacy of feeling was wasted upon the young man's mother, however, she who had spent many blameless years as a nurse, paying for the house from which her son had now driven her. Sympathy went out only to the son, who fitted the mold of someone in need of protection from an uncomprehending and hostile society. The fact that, if no one intervened, he might well kill or seriously injure someone and end up in an institution for the criminally insane for life was of no particular concern. My colleague would interpret it as further evidence of the oppressive, racist nature of society, and of the need to treat such as he with even more delicacy of feeling. There are no episodes from which the wrong conclusions cannot be drawn.
Even I, despite my staunch opposition to racialized thinking or actions, have found it difficult to resist the spirit of the age entirely. One of the worst mistakes I ever made was because I allowed myself to give consideration to race, where none should have been given.
A young black man, who still lived with his mother, began to withdraw, as if into a shell. Never very communicative or outgoing, he continued to work but not to speak. On one occasion, he did speak to his motherabout the disposal of his belongings if he should die.
One day, his mother returned to find the house barricaded. Her son was inside, having propped furniture against the doors and windows. His mother called the fire department, who had difficulty entering. They found the son unconscious, with his wrists cut and blood everywhere. He had taken an overdose of pills also.
He had lost so much blood that he required a transfusion before the surgery to repair his tendons could begin. A more determined effort to kill oneself could hardly be imagined. I suggested to his mother that, after his recovery from the operation, he be transferred to a psychiatric ward.
At first, she agreed, relieved at the suggestion. But then another of her sons and a friend arrived in the hospital, and the atmosphere changed at once. You might have supposed from their attitude toward me that it was I who had cut the young man's wrists, barricaded him in the house, and nearly done him to death. My argument that his conduct over the past weeks suggested that he had become mentally disturbed in some way that required further investigation, and that he was in grave danger of killing himself, was called racist: I wouldn't have argued thus if my patient had been white. The hospital was racist; the doctors were racist; I in particular was racist.
Unfortunately, the mother, with whom my relations until the arrival of the two other men had been cordial, now took their part. Under no circumstances would she allow her son to go to a psychiatric ward, where they routinely (and purposely) drugged young black men to death. The brother and the friend warned me that if I insisted, they would get their friends to create a disturbance in the hospital.
The law allowed me to overrule the young man's mother, brother, and friend, but the scene was becoming ugly. I arranged to meet them the following day, in the hope that their attitude was but a manifestation of passing anxiety, but by then their attitude had hardened. I caved in: but before doing so, I made the mother sign a statement that I had warned her of the consequences of refusing further investigation and treatment of her son, for which she would hold neither me nor the hospital responsible. The document was of no legal validity whatsoever; whatever force it had was strictly moral.
I did not quite give up. I sent a nurse to the young man's home, but she was several times denied entry on the grounds that her (racist) services were not required. A few weeks later, the young man killed himself by hanging.
At least the family did not have the gall to sue me for not having invoked the full force of the law (as, on reflection, I should have). They did not argue that I had failed to hospitalize him against his will for racist reasons, not caring about the fate of a mere black manan argument that doubtless would have struck some people as entirely plausible. Indeed, I did not invoke the law for reasons of race, though not for racist reasons: for had the family been white, I would certainly have overruled them. But I had capitulated to the orthodoxy that avoiding race conflict must trump all other considerations, including the mere welfare of individuals. For in our current climate of opinion, every white man is a racist until proved otherwise.
No one doubts the survival of racist sentiment. The other day, for example, I was in a taxi driven by a young Indian who disliked the way a young Jamaican was driving. "Throw that man a banana!" he exclaimed unselfconsciously. His spontaneous outburst spoke volumes about his real feelings.
But the survival of such sentiment hardly requires or justifies the presumption that all public services are inherently and malignantly racist, and that therefore considerations of racial justice should play a bigger part in the provision of services than considerations of individual need. In this situation, black and white are united by their own kind of folie à deux, the blacks fearing that all whites are racist, the whites fearing that all blacks will accuse them of racism.
And while we are locked in this folly, innocents like Anna Climbie die.